How I Found a Great Job After Experiencing Discrimination Based on My Disability

Lola DiNizio
Woman at job interview.

I had imposter syndrome before I could be an imposter. Any adult professional aspirations felt beyond my grasp, untouchable, wrong — having a dream job felt presumptuous. I have cerebral palsy, comprising major nerve damage to my lower facial nerves. I am unable to physically speak, although “normally” functioning otherwise.

How, I thought, could I work in any office environment if I couldn’t take a phone call? Make a presentation? Speak to my peers? Be taken seriously?

I struggle with writing about my disability. There’s always a perverse desire to end on a galvanizing note; to lean heavily on the word “despite.” “Despite my cerebral palsy, I am a successful freelancer! Despite life-long discrimination, I am still able to prove my worth as a ‘highly functioning’ member of society! Despite the rampant bias in the hiring process, I’ve desperately crawled my way up into eking out some sort of a career for myself, occasionally at the expense of my dignity and mental health!”

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“Look at how well I’m doing, look how great I am at having a disability. If I can do it, surely you abled-bodied folk can!” I exist as the Trevi Fountain of feel-good inspiration, outsider gawking at my Rococo charms. Find me promoting my hardcover on Oprah, flip through the Hallmark channel to watch me overcome the odds through my gritted smile. “So what if I can’t talk,” I repeat as a mantra to onlookers. “So what?”

“So, why can’t you talk?” an interviewer asked me, glancing distractedly around the room packed with posters of a well-known talk show host beaming down at us.

“Cerebral palsy!” I wrote, trying to put a jaunty, exclamation mark littered flair in my panicked half-cursive. Cue rehearsed script: “But I assure you, it has never affected me professionally! If anything, it’s an asset!”

“Uh-huh. Interesting. Well, we’re still considering candidates and uh, we’ll get back to you if…” Whatever. I know the ADA prohibits prospective employers from asking about the nature of your disability. But am I going to call him out? File a complaint and blow all chances of landing this gig? Nope. I later found out I wasn’t hired because I couldn’t use a walkie-talkie on set. Was that an essential job function not covered by the ADA, providing just cause not to hire me?

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I’ve struggled to find work my whole life. This can’t be attributed solely to not being able to talk. I have my strengths and weaknesses and like every other frenzied job seeker, I’ve sent hundreds of applications via the LinkedIn “Easy Apply” button. Does that ever work for anyone? There’s a maddening tightrope walk of self-doubt: am I being discriminated against or does my application just not stand out? Do I mention my disability in my cover letter or wait until the interview to drop the bomb?

Following my graduation from Columbia University, I spent a year job searching. I sent hundreds of job applications, with a handful of organizations hitting me back. I toed the brink of complete moral bankruptcy when I interviewed at a nefarious, far-right news think tank. Fortunately for the sake of my soul, I wasn’t called for a second round.

I hesitated to go through a disability employment service. I occasionally engage in pride to the point of hubris — and in both a denial and rejection of my disability, I wanted to do things the “right way,” like all my able-bodied friends did. Hustle, apply for jobs, interview, bam, get paid. Even if it’s a job I hated, I didn’t care. However, I eventually accepted that I direly needed help. My godmother referred me to ADAPT Community Network in NYC. They connected me to the ReelAbilities Film Festival who shortly, and to my immense relief, hired me as an outreach coordinator.

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ReelAbilities is the world’s premiere film festival by, for and about people with disabilities. I’m not bluffing, even though my boss is reading this, when I say I love this job. I get to connect to hundreds of disability-based organizations and push the festival’s outreach. The irony — I’m a woman who can’t speak specializing in communications.

This year, we’re screening two films that pertain both to my experience and to many readers of The Mighty: “Don’t Foil My Plans,” about a man with autism navigating building an independent life, and “25 Prospect Street,” a behind-the-screens look at a nonprofit movie theater in Connecticut with a mission of meaningful employment for people with disabilities.

While it’s true that I’ve only been treated as an equal at a ReelAbilities, I want it to be appreciated, not celebrated. This should be the norm. I sincerely hope through the screenings of our films, we can present a small slice of the non-singular disability experience.

ReelAbilities 2020 Poster

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