Sorry, You’re Not Disabled Enough

Well, I’ve done it: I’ve taken the monumental step of applying for disability benefits while I finish my final year of university and join the ranks of those desperate students looking for gainful employment. After almost a full year, my application has finally been dealt with … and it has been denied.

On my application, I stressed that, while I am fully capable of working, employer attitudes—as well as workplace accommodations—pose a serious challenge. Even if I have all the right skills and knowledge, an employer is likely to skip over me in an effort to avoid hardship. I can’t even blame them, really. No one likes to take a chance on what they perceive to be a wild card. I know, I’ve been there before. (That’s another story for another post.)

Despite my attempt to explain the challenges I face, the person who reviewed my application remained unmoved. I should, she wrote, go out and purchase assistive technology (she did not specify which technology, nor did she specify where I was to get the money for such purchases). She went on to say that, once this technology has been acquired, I should have no problem finding a job. I’m not sure she realizes that setting up just one laptop so that I can use it can cost $1000. A braille display can cost $3000. If I had that kind of money lying around, I wouldn’t be applying for benefits, now would I? She concluded by informing me that I was not disabled enough to qualify for benefits. In closing, she advised me to make use of job searching tools.

Not disabled enough. Now that’s a new one. All my life, people have been assuming I’m more disabled than I actually am, and now that it matters, I’m being told my disability is, in essence, irrelevant when it comes to job searching. What I find interesting is that many blind people in Canada, the US, and the UK have little difficulty obtaining disability benefits based on blindness alone. I have other disabilities which hinder me as well, but even with all of those, I’m told to go out and buy some tech. No mention of how I’m supposed to convince reluctant employers to give me a try. No mention of how I’m supposed to live while I search (as I start repaying my student loans, of course). Most interestingly, no mention of how disabled I would have to be to receive any help at all. I’ve known other people on benefits for bad backs … surely blindness, mental illness, and chronic tension pain are equal to a bad back?

I’m not alone. I have spoken to a handful of blind Albertans who claim they were denied as well, even when they appealed. I’m currently in the process of appealing, but my hopes aren’t high. Even the process itself is frustrating. I can’t seem to get hold of anyone. Everything takes an inordinate amount of time to get done, if it gets done. Some dark part of me thinks they make it arduous on purpose, just so you’ll give up and go away.

I won’t go away.

I need this more than they need to be left in peace. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. I was raised to be self-sufficient. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and all. It took me years to admit I might need government help, and to this day I cringe when I think about it. I feel absurdly guilty, even though I know I have the right to a bit of help. Struggling as I have to be approved, I’ve had ample time to doubt. Maybe I’m just grabby? Maybe I’m not trying hard enough to explore alternatives? Maybe employers are more receptive than I think they are? Maybe … maybe …

The facts don’t support my doubts, though. Take a look at this disturbing poll in which employers admit they find hiring blind people frightening; they don’t want to deal with extra expense (sometimes the expense is much lower than they think it will be). Most tellingly, they believe that a disabled person takes more and yields less. A black hole, in other words. Who wants to throw money at a black hole?

Their fears are mostly groundless. There is evidence to suggest that disabled people, once settled with the necessary accommodations, are hard workers and very loyal. We know the value of a job, and for my part, I’d never risk it because I know how precious it is. I’m not naïve enough to search for the perfect job. I don’t need rewarding, not yet. What I need is paying.

So, even with the deck stacked against me in almost every way possible, I’m stuck—at least for now. I will have to hope that, once I graduate, I find employment very quickly. I will need to pay for an apartment, and the living cost in Edmonton is only climbing higher. I will need to begin paying back my student loans. Once my fiance moves here, I may need to support us both for awhile until he can find a job himself. We are both blind, and both qualified to do useful work. We are both, theoretically, in demand. And yet our resumes will find their way into the recycling bins more often than not. Our calls will go unreturned. Hiring managers, initially so excited by our qualifications, will suddenly lose interest without any apparent provocation. They will make feeble excuses, because they can’t legally say, “sorry…you’re blind, so we don’t want to deal with you.”

Eventually, I’ll get lucky. I’ll find a company that is willing to give me a shot. I’ll do well, because I’ve been trained well and because I am grateful for every opportunity. I’ll be okay, eventually. Haven’t I gone on and on about how blind people live full, rich lives?

In the meantime, though, I’ll just have to hope that someone decides I’m disabled enough.