As we enter National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I have to stop and reflect on what I’ve learned about employment opportunities for individuals with mental illness, the depth of the human spirit and what it means to be courageous. I started in this field two years ago after working in real estate for the previous nine years and had been looking to make a career change – something more rewarding than swimming in paperwork, going on sales calls and going home feeling that I hadn’t actually contributed anything. I found it.
I now work as the Individual Placement & Support Coordinator (IPS) for New Foundation Center, an organization that partners with people who have a mental illness. We support their recovery and their pursuit of lives with meaning and purpose.
One of the things I’ve learned is that, in general, employers don’t care about whether a job applicant has a disability or not. They care about a person’s ability to carry out the responsibilities of their job with or without an accommodation. They care about whether a job applicant wants to be there and contribute to the business or organization. This becomes apparent when our team gets out in the community to job-develop, or network with employers on behalf of the clients we serve. We hear over and over again “have your client apply and if they fit what we’re looking for, we’ll hire them”. And then they do. Most employers really don’t care about anything other than whether an applicant has the right experience, skill-set and interest in working for them – powerful information for a job seeker with a disability.
I’ve learned that as smart as I sometimes think I am, I cannot predict the success of our clients. One of the great things about our philosophy and program model is that it presupposes someone is going to be successful. We’ve had several clients without any substantive work history or traditional job skills, gain employment, get into the job and succeed beyond any reasonable expectations. All they needed was a chance. At the end of the day, that’s all any of us can ask for, but is also something everyone, regardless of disability, should expect to receive.
There is still a stigma that surrounds individuals who struggle with mental illness. We’ve all seen the same movies and media reports that reinforce this stigma and the associated negative stereotypes. I’ve caught myself thinking “no way is this person going to be able to find a job” a few times, early on in my work. I’ve been proven wrong. Repeatedly. Not only do the clients we serve find jobs, but they get promoted, receive awards and get recognized for their hard work and ability, not their disability.
Finally, I’ve learned something about what it means to be courageous. Courage, as the adage goes, is the willingness to act in spite of fear, not in its absence. Due to the pervasive and invasive nature of mental illness, many of the clients we serve live in fear of many of the things the rest of us take for granted. Imagine having a paralyzing fear of rejection, a fear so intense it causes you to shake and sweat in anticipation of being judged as somehow deficient; a judgment that’s been rendered upon you over and over again. Now imagine taking that fear into every job application you fill out, every interview you go on, every first day of work and succeeding despite these fears. That’s what our clients face and overcome each time the hit they begin the job search process anew. That’s the courage I wish I could demonstrate.
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About the Author
Eric Lindstrom currently serves as the Individual Placement & Support Coordinator (IPS) for New Foundation Center, a community mental health agency in Northfield, IL. New Foundation Center utilizes a supported employment program that provides individualized vocational assistance to anyone diagnosed with severe mental illness, regardless of symptoms, substance abuse, work history or ability to pay for services. The only requirement is a desire to work.