Trying to Transition from Tax Recipient to Tax Payer

When I first accepted my limited vision, I’d still been certain I could find work in my field. I was a seasoned training professional with over twenty years’ experience in all aspects of the profession. Okay, I could see that a system’s trainer who could no longer see a computer screen probably wouldn’t be an asset. But I’d only been doing that for five years. The majority of my career had been spent developing curricula, writing course content and consulting with division managers. I’d lost some of my sight, but none of my mind. As long as I could still use a computer, I could certainly still do my job.

In preparation, I took every rehabilitative course I could find to learn to use a computer with magnification software. (Click here if you would like to find similar courses.)

I also had to learn how to trust my other senses so that I wasn’t intimidated about being in new environments I couldn’t see very well. I even secured the devices I’d need in order to be effective so I wouldn’t present an undue burden on potential employers. Then I applied to all the contracting companies I’d used successfully in the past, and honestly expected to be able to return to work.

That didn’t happen. Despite years of experience and proven successes in my field, and my eventual willingness to take a more junior role to get back into the workforce, I was unable to find a single contract among contacts I’d worked with for years.

This coincided with my diminished eyesight, but that was never given as the reason I failed to be picked up. We do have laws against that kind of thing. Instead, I was told that the design side of training had advanced during the five years I’d spent on the road facilitating, and my knowledge of some of the new design applications wasn’t up to snuff.

Whatever. My profession, like many others, has been strongly impacted by rapidly changing technology. Everyone wants to use the latest trendy applications to make information dance around the screen. Which is all very cool and exciting, but a complete waste of time unless it motivates behavioral change. Which, after all, is still what we get paid to do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against new ideas. I gave birth to and paid a lot of tuition for one of these little Millennials currently flooding our work spaces, eager to change the world. And she is a very intelligent, talented, intense young woman who definitely needs to have a job. But just because Millennials may be more proficient integrating technology into the way we do business today, that doesn’t make Gen Xers obsolete. Because guess what doesn’t get upgraded every six weeks – the human mind and how it adapts to change. Anyone who intends to stay relevant can learn to use a computer application. The skills, learning theories and experiences people my age bring to the table that took years to cultivate? Yeah, you can’t simulate that on a computer. And just so you know, if they ever do discover how to use AI to replace human proficiency to that degree, then everybody will be out of a job.

So think about that as you little smarty pants play with your computer applications.

And while you’re at it, GET OFF MY LAWN!!

I hadn’t been out of work since I was 18 years old. The initial months I spent without income introduced me to the soul crushing feeling of knowing you lack the resources to secure your basic needs. The humility necessary to accept financial help from friends and family who have little to spare. And the sense of futility cause by waking up in the morning and realizing it makes absolutely no difference if you get out of bed because you have nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Yet I was stuck in place by my own stubbornness and sense of entitlement. It felt as if the new world of training was trying to get over on everybody. As far as I was concerned, they were trying to get me to do two jobs for less money than I’d been making to do one. And I was not going to let them get away with that.

Now that I’ve admitted that in writing, I can see how crazy it sounds. If my kid had expressed that thought during her job search, I probably would have laughed in her delusional little face and explained that life doesn’t work that way.

Yet these were sentiments supported by many of my peers who also found themselves suddenly needing to find new opportunities. Every one of us found work environments where the compensation, expectations and qualifications made no sense and seemed to change on a daily basis.

The workplace we faced barely resembled the environment we’d entered a mere 20 years before, and we definitely didn’t recall everyone rushing to change the rules in order to accommodate all our big ideas. It felt as if we were being pushed out by our children before we had our chance to replace our parents. We of the Lost Generation will forever be squeezed between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, and there’s not much we can do about that. In lieu of solid solutions, we needed a moment to have our private tantrums…

…then hurry up and wedge ourselves onto the train that was leaving the station without us.

My impaired sight made it difficult for me to catch up to them, and I still had bills to pay. So I took a job at a factory designed to give work to blind and visually impaired people. That organization and many others can be found here on this directory from the American Foundation for the Blind.

That is information, not a recommendation. The job paid minimum wage, the days were much more regimented than any work environment I’d ever experienced, and the work itself was mind-numbingly repetitive.

But it was a job, and sometimes you have to do what you have to do. I knew it would never pay enough to allow me to live independent of governmental assistance, but at least it would give me back my sense of dignity. My plan was to work there long enough to regroup, maybe save some money, and plan my next steps.

I gave myself a year. I lasted nine months. The worst nine months of my life. It wasn’t because of the work itself; we were allowed to use headphones while we worked and I took the opportunity to download OverDrive, Hoopla and OneClick Digital, three applications that anyone can put on a smartphone in order to check out resources from the library. My coworkers also introduced me to BARD Mobile, a library resource exclusively for the blind and visually impaired.  I live to read, so I was content to zone out at the machine while I got a ton of reading done.

My discontent wasn’t entirely about the money, either, although seeing such a small salary in exchange for a full 40 hour work week could be demoralizing if I let myself think about it. FWIW, my experience working that job has somewhat altered my views on the minimum wage debate. I’m still not sold on the argument that the minimum wage needs to be $15 an hour because some perfectly legitimate jobs don’t contribute enough to the bottom line to warrant that rate of pay. Inflating wages because workers need more money isn’t a viable proposition. Companies are in business to make profits. If forced to unnaturally increase wages, we all know they will eventually raise costs for consumer goods and services or cut back on the number of people they employ to rebalance the bottom line.

I truly understand, first hand, that it isn’t a good feeling to see how little a day’s efforts at the minimum wage brings in. But I can’t honestly say that I believe what I did was worth more than I was paid. However, just because it’s impractical to alleviate the struggles of entry-level employees by throwing money at the situation shouldn’t mean we do nothing at all. Maybe a good option to address the plight of the minimum wage worker would be to somehow encourage companies to create viable paths for their low-wage workers to move up to roles with more responsibility and better pay.

What made my factory experience unbearable were the actions and attitudes of the management. If I hadn’t been there I’m not sure I’d have believed it. The owner, who they all called Mr. Jim, had the kind of southern twang I’d been dreading since I moved to the south.

And he ran that place like a damn plantation, too. I’m not entirely sure I should say that. I feel it diminishes what my ancestors endured when people casually compare their experiences in contemporary workplaces to being enslaved just because they don’t like jobs they are free to walk away from. So I sincerely apologize to anyone I offended with that comparison. But in this case I stand by it. The constant paternalism and disrespect, the sense of being scrutinized and spied on at all times, and well-honed methods designed to turn workers against one another felt like all the depictions of plantation life I’ve ever heard.

After my ninth monthly meeting, where grown men and women were herded together to be lectured like mentally handicapped children on the importance of flushing toilets, washing hands, and being grateful to Mr. Jim for having our jobs (knowing full well that he received a subsidy for every blind or visually impaired employee in the place and without us he’d have to close up shop), I’d had enough. I could not listen to one more disrespectful rant. After two run-ins when I’d first been hired, the man never really said much to me. He was a bully; like all bullies he knew how to pick his victims. But I worked with former teachers, IT professionals, even a decorated Marine who had lost his sight in Iraq. I couldn’t stand hearing them be disrespected either.

In a fit of victim blaming, I’ll admit I was irritated at my co-workers for taking it. I honestly couldn’t understand how people could allow such a work environment to exist, all because of one arrogantly insecure man. It was like they thought they had no other options.

Then I left and discovered that, despite resources like those found here,  they have a point.

Before quitting that job, I’d applied for a grant to a local training facility. My experience at the factory gave me a completely new perspective of my former occupation. I realized I needed to get over myself and learn the design application so many employers were looking for.

After resisting the inevitable for so long, I found I actually enjoyed learning the new skill. I could see how being able to develop what I designed gave me more autonomy over the content. I would no longer be constrained by the skills or whims of a content developer. I was genuinely excited when I completed the course, and looking forward to putting my skills to work.

Again, didn’t happen. In the ten or eleven months I’d been dragging my feet, the industry had moved on to a similar application. It did all the same things, but in a manner different enough that I’d need to take another course in order to use it.

Before I’d completely absorbed this latest set-back, I received a response from a job posting I’d found online and responded to without giving it much thought. It was for a marketing company that uses training seminars to sell books. This company wasn’t thought of very highly in my professional circles, and I never expected them to call.

But call they did. There were additional hoops to jump through in order to secure the contract. I had to put together a short class and film myself giving it to an audience, then upload the video to YouTube for review. Which I did, successfully, and was sent a conditional employment contract subject to my passing a group orientation class at the company’s headquarters in Kansas.

I got the materials the company sent, attended the mandatory conference calls, and prepared and memorized the required presentations. Then I traveled all by myself from North Carolina to Kansas to attend the orientation. All of these things were a bit more challenging because of my eye sight, but I did them and did them well. The company didn’t even know about my ‘disability’ until I told them after I arrived.

And that was the excuse they used to break the contract. One of the questions during the application process was whether I had a driver’s license. Of course I did; I’d only been sight impaired for a little over two years. They never asked me if I could drive a car.

I knew it was a lie of omission and not completely ethical. But the way I understood this post about the Americans with Disabilities Act, my ability to use Uber and Lyft to get myself around to client’s locations constituted a reasonable accommodation as described here by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

After all the difficulty I’d experienced just getting that far in the interview process, I decided to follow this advice from Job Doozy, an organization that specializes in finding employment for cleints with disabilities. Which was that it was in my best interest not to volunteer information that would hurt my chances before I could prove my abilities.

Usually by the time you are invited to the orientation, the contract is yours to lose. I promise you my presentations were as good as every other contractor there, and my background was a damn sight better than some. The feedback I received on my presentations from both the staff and my fellow contractors was consistently constructive and complimentary.

Yet as we packed up to go, I knew I wasn’t going to get the nod. The two contractors I had lunch with didn’t believe me, but it was obvious. I’d flown up there and financed a week’s stay at an Airbnb on my own dime, traveling as economically as possible because I had no dimes to spare. All to be rejected not because of what I did or could do, but because of strangers’ limited ability to understand the true extent of my physical disability.

I was understandably pissed by the time I returned home. Without waiting for the official decision, I contacted my case worker with the NCDHHS: Services for the Blind, certain that I had grounds for a discrimination lawsuit. I was qualified for that job, had met all the requirements, and had proactively identified reasonable accommodations for the few aspects of the position affected by my sight.

I found out that, once again, I had it wrong. More accurately, the case worker thought we both had it wrong. A quick study of these EEOC guidelines prove the  company clearly wasn’t ADA compliant with their recruiting and hiring practices. Since I wasn’t applying for a job to be a driver, the question about a driver’s license was out of order if not outright illegal. But even though I hadn’t so much lied as smudged the truth when asked a direct question during the interview, the rep at NCDHHS felt that I’d messed up my case by being less than forthcoming.

What she didn’t have an opinion on was how to get a job if you can’t get past the interview.

She was just one person. There was nothing stopping me from pursuing it further. Groups like Disability Rights and Resources exist to help people get justice when they are being discriminated against (click here for more info).

I chose not to bother.  It just didn’t feel worth the effort. I’d already wasted weeks of my time, a lot of emotional energy, and money I didn’t have chasing a job I wasn’t even sure I wanted. The whole experience left me tired, frustrated, and ready to chalk it up as a loss.

But I didn’t feel like a loser, because at least I’d taken a chance on myself. I had neither time nor energy to dwell on people who weren’t willing to look beyond what they thought I could see in order to do the same.

By the time I got the email advising me the company was uninterested in going forward with the contract,

I’d already begun researching ‘new economy’ opportunities. I’m pretty sure that my best bet for finding a job is to create one.

There are a lot of exciting, lucrative options out there if you have the skills and temperament to master them. I’ve identified several streams of potential income I feel I can harness, and am hopeful for the future.

But what about people whose backgrounds and skills don’t easily translate to the demands of this new economy? People who just need a chance to work a job that allows them to live with dignity. As this article points out, the ADA can only go so far.

As it stands now, the unemployment rate for disabled citizens stands at a whopping 70%! That is a lot of people being left out of the economy. In order for real change to take place, more people have to understand the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of knowing you have a place in society and the opportunity to make a tangible contribution to the world. It’s in all of our best interest to insist that every potential tax payer be given an opportunity to do so.

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