“People with disabilities are seen as ill and sick and not being able to contribute,” said Avery Olmstead of Old Town, who was born with cerebral palsy.
He’s been unemployed or underemployed most of his life–but not for lack of trying.
“I could tell people that were comfortable with me and people that weren’t. So I would spend a lot of time making them feel comfortable which didn’t give me a lot of time to show how I could contribute to their organization,” said Olmstead.
While looking for work, Olmstead spends a lot of his time speaking to students–like this class at Husson–trying to combat disability discrimination, which, though illegal, is very much real.
“Studies have shown there is a pretty inherent bias on the part of employers against people with disabilities. Sending cover letters to employers and doing blind tests showing that the cover letters that don’t disclose a disability you’re much more likely to get a call back for a job interview,” said Riley Albair, an advocate with Disability Rights Maine.
“I applied everywhere, and nobody wanted to hire me, because I’m in this damn wheelchair,” said Mark Leavitt of Newburgh. Leavitt was a plumber for decades–until seven strokes back in 2003 made it hard to get around–or to get work.
“I’m a good worker–I owned my own plumbing and heating company.”(LEAVITT) “I’d do anything to get back to work. Make some money,” said Leavitt.
“Basically their biggest barrier is no one will give them a chance,” said Lee Hockridge of Katahdin Friends Incorporated.
Hockridge helps match people with disabilities with employers in the Millinocket area.
He says for many employers that bias is pervasive, even when there’s little to no risk for the company.
“I’m asking you to give this person a try for 40 hours for free labor and some companies, they still don’t want to get involved with it,” said Hockridge.
Matthew Jamieson of Millinocket–who has spina bifida–knows that frustration firsthand.
“Well, I’ve put applications to different stores. I kept following up, but it just didn’t work out,” said Jamieson.
But recently he got into a trial work program at Millinocket Regional Hospital.
Hospital officials are trying to find him a permanent job that plays to his strengths–computers and customer service.
“It’s giving me a positive thought. I’m actually feeling pretty good that I might get a job,” said Jamieson.
Mel Clarrage, who’s been blind since birth, feels fortunate to have been employed most of his life.
He serves on three governor-appointed boards related to disability and employment.
“We’ve got to stop focusing so much on the disability part of it…maybe drop the dis and focus on the ability,” said Clarrage.
On this day he’s pushing a proposed transportation voucher program–which he sees as crucial in Maine, where public transit is limited.
“If one is not able to drive in a rural state, it restricts your opportunities to be able to excel in the workforce,” said Clarrage.
In addition to these obstacles, advocates like Riley Albair of Disability Rights Maine see the existing disability benefit program as a catch-22.
“So you go back to work and maybe you do so well at your job that you get to move off of those benefits, but then that also means they lose this medical care that enabled them to get the job in the first place,” said Albair.
For others, the barriers start closer to home.
“Perhaps the school or their families even have instilled a low expectation for work. so they don’t get asked the questions when they’re three our four years old or seven years old ‘what do you want to do when you grow up'” said Gail Fanjoy, CEO of KFI.
As for Avery Olmstead–he’s not giving up just yet.
“I’m really–I’m open to a lot. So if anybody’s interested, call me because I’ll answer the phone,” said Olmstead.