By Shawn Murinko
Like virtually everybody else, you were herded into our higher education system with a promise: if you make the arduous climb up the Ivory Tower the world awaits you with the opportunity to join the ranks of the employed. Therein lies the problem, however, as very rarely does this experience alone prepare you for the journey that lies ahead.
In college, if you are motivated enough to take in the full experience, you may easily find yourself withdrawn into a world of relative passivity entrenched in textbooks and regurgitating idealism in your writing assignments. Sustained interpersonal communication, for the most part, remains optional. The culture I describe didn’t serve me very well as I made my transition into the world of work. Is it an accomplishment to obtain a degree? Of course. If anything, it demonstrates perseverance, initiative and hopefully, in the final analysis, some degree of marketable intelligence which is sought after by good employers.
Unfortunately, checking off the “education box” alone won’t be enough to guarantee employment, especially for those who have a visible disability. Despite our best and well-intentioned efforts to rid our society of stereotypes, they remain as oppressive, ignorant vestiges of a time where people with disabilities were cared for instead of endeavoring to and supported in the quest to care for themselves.
Not long after I passed the Bar exam, I was offered an invitation to interview for an attorney position in the public sector in a small office made up of only three other lawyers. While I was visibly dressed for the occasion, my wheelchair apparently didn’t match the receptionist’s perception of what an attorney looked like. As I wheeled up to the front desk to let her know I was there for an interview, the look on her face and the hesitation in her voice told me how this chapter would end before it even began. She meekly inquired, “For the attorney position?”
Looking back on my struggle to obtain employment, I wish programs like CareerACCESS had existed. Joining the workforce is a daunting proposition for anybody, but even more so for people with disabilities who battle existing stereotypes even before they arrive. Additionally, and perhaps even more critical to the long-term success of employing people with disabilities, is the development of programs to foster sustained employment. CareerACCESS’ initiatives regarding individualized career planning provide the partnerships and supports needed to optimize success and ultimately, satisfaction while working. Simply, while I would still have found myself in a jungle, I wouldn’t have been so alone in my journey to find a pathway into the world of work.
In the absence of these supports, I’ve had to work diligently to overcome my shyness. I’ve had to join committees, volunteer for organizations and attend the occasional over-priced charity dinner in an effort to come out as a person with a disability who is ready, willing and able to work for economic self-sufficiency. I had to find my voice, own my voice, and be willing to share it with others in order to put others in my profession on notice that I had arrived and was ready to contribute in a meaningful way. As difficult as it might be to believe, especially for somebody in my profession, I am naturally very shy. In fact, within larger groups, I would rather sit behind a potted plant (if my wheelchair would visibly allow), then mingle and schmooze. Over time, though, I’ve learned that my preference for introversion wasn’t congruent with my goals and aspirations –it stood in direct opposition of it. It reinforced the perception that I still receive in other parts of my life – that I am either invisible or an oddity.
If you’re still behind the plant, step out. When you do, you’ll undoubtedly discover your voice. It’s likely more important than you realize and it may very well be the key to arrival. Be on your way.
Shawn Murinko lives in Olympia, WA with his wife and two daughters. An attorney and graduate of Gonzaga University School of Law, Shawn works for the Washington State Department of Transportation and serves as a Commissioner for the Washington State Human Rights Commission.