Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

"Get It in Your Head:
" My Grandmother's Advice Was Right

For as long as I can remember, I have been encouraged to achieve. In my family, particularly on my mother's side, that meant to go to school and "get it in your head," one of my grandmother's favorite sayings. She believed that no one could take away whatever you had learned, not even Whites who, in her experience, so often wanted people of color to have less than they had, and be less than they were. I did not know until after her death that she had once been a teacher in a one-room school, which explains why she always wanted to check my spelling or my math homework when I was in elementary school.

I felt I had a lot to live up to. There were a number of teachers, principals, social workers, and other college educated/ graduate school persons in the family to aspire to be like, and sometimes that made me nervous! However, I have known for a long time that the hardest expectations to live up to are often your own. Early in life I got the message that I would have to deal with "triple jeopardy," being an African American, a person with a disability, and a female. Therefore, because of any or all of these circumstances, I would have to prove myself many times over.try a little harder, be a little smarter than those around me. The best way to do this, according to my family, was to stay in school, as it was obvious that I would not be able to do manual labor.

Of course, life did not go exactly as I had expected that it would. I thought that as soon as I graduated from college, I would land a great paying job as either a speech language pathologist or a remedial reading teacher, marry a psychologist, move into an accessible three-bedroom home, and have a daughter (I didn't want much, did I?). Along the way, I found out that there were people who did not think my goals were realistic. After graduating from high school, vocational rehabilitation services referred me to a psychologist to determine whether I could handle the rigors of attending college. He felt the answer was no, not for lack of ability, rather because he thought I wouldn't be able to handle the stress of exams and deadlines for papers, or keep up with reading assignments. My mother was with me at the time and she disagreed vehemently, so in the fall of that year I was sitting in the classrooms of a junior college in Chicago, continuing to "get it in my head" despite his doubts.

About four years later, we moved back to Minneapolis, and I transferred to the University of Minnesota. While a senior majoring in Elementary Education I again ran into someone else's lowered expectations of what I would be able to accomplish. A professor told me, "You know, you're a very pretty girl.I'm sure it won't be long until you're married. Why don't you just get a job as a teacher's aide, work from 10-2, and let your husband take care of you?" At the time he said this I had left student teaching after two weeks because of discipline problems with my students and was feeling like quitting - just as I was about to graduate. However, after that remark I knew I would get my degree. I was not about to give in to such a sexist and insensitive way of thinking about my gender or disability!

In June 1982, I got a Bachelor of Science degree because I knew that I was capable, and I realized that I had come too far not to finish what I had started. Since I did not complete my student teaching experience, I could not get a degree in Elementary Education. However, I was fortunate enough to be able to keep the credits I had earned; I added a minor in English and graduated. Then I started looking for the great paying job that I believed to be right around the corner just waiting for me to find it. Much to my surprise, there was no fantasy job waiting for me. The next eight years found me doing volunteer work and I was laid-off from a couple of low-paying positions when they ran out of funding for me.

In October 1990, I got a job as an information and referral specialist at an early childhood resource center. I ran computerized searches for licensed childcare providers based on the criteria specified by parents who called our office looking for day care. I started working there at about $7.61 an hour, a huge disappointment as far as the expectations that I had placed on myself. However, this job taught me my first computer skills, taught me how to handle difficult situations, and helped to sharpen my problem-solving skills. Because I was a person with a disability who was at ease listening to and advising parents of children with disabilities who were having difficulty finding childcare, eventually all calls were transferred to me when they involved a family with a child who had, or was thought to have, a disability.

From there, I became Information and Referral Coordinator at United Cerebral Palsy of Minnesota and the calls that I received became more diverse and complicated - about everything from Social Security to sexuality. Always learning, "get it in your head "stuck with me.

Today, I am a Community Program Specialist at the Institute on Community Integration. My job entails outreach to communities of color who may not be aware of available services for those with disabilities, and working toward increasing the number of persons with disabilities who are competitively employed. Looking back on what I have learned in the process of getting here, the advice I would give to women with disabilities who are dealing with double or triple jeopardy is the following:

  • Ask for assistance when you need it, and if something does not work out, figure out where things fell apart, fix it to the best of your ability, and keep moving!
  • I think that family is always the frontline of support, but if that's not true for you, find it in teachers, friends (and/or their parents), mentors, or anyone else who gives you positive feedback and makes you feel good about yourself and the person you are evolving into.
  • Find your passion and pursue it as if it is a vital part of who and what you are, because unless you are a morning person, which I am not, doing what you love makes getting out of bed just a little easier.

Therefore, my grandmother was right. If you "get it in your head," there will be bumps in the road but you can be a person of color, female, and have a disability and prove the doubters wrong.