This letter was originally written as an email and has since been formatted as a blog post.
Dear Ms. Williams,
My name is Sarah Blahovec, and I am a recent graduate of American University. I came across your name in Katherine Schwarzenegger's book, I Just Graduated...Now What? I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on women in the workplace, as that has been a topic of great interest to me due to its personal impact. Through reading books including Lean In and Off the Sidelines, it has been illuminating to discover the ways that women are starting a dialogue on how to advance their careers while still enjoying a meaningful personal life. I have been struggling with my own issue that is both similar and very different from the problems faced by most career-minded women, and adds another layer to the challenge of goal achievement: trying to pursue a career as a woman who is disabled.
At the age of fifteen, I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, and for over six years, I have overcome numerous life-threatening complications. Despite the numerous obstacles that my medical status posed, I graduated high school on time and college a year early, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. This effort involved everything from cyber schooling high school to accommodate the difficult early days of my illness, to taking summer college courses in a hospital bed while awaiting surgery, to writing term papers in infusion centers. I was proud to say that even if I had just come from a minor emergency surgery and was loaded up with strong painkillers, I was still outspoken in class, meticulous in my homework, and reliable at my part-time job and my internships.
Now that I am entering the working world, I am encountering a new set of challenges. In a nine-to-five job with only five or ten sick days per year, I no longer have the flexibility that allowed me to thrive in college. Much like asking for flexibility in the workplace has been difficult for women with families, mentioning that a disability could impact an employer is professional suicide (don't let the legal requirement for accommodation fool you: a company once withdrew an offer because they refused to postpone the position's start date one day to accommodate a routine treatment). This is especially problematic for an entry-level worker, someone who doesn't have years of valued expertise to their name, and is therefore deemed expendable. My temporary employment has been incredibly flexible since I started in April, especially considering the fact that I had an eight-day hospitalization and one or two doctors appointments per week until recently. I don't want to see my career limited to "what works" with my disability in terms of employers who tolerate flexibility. I want to learn how to balance my passions and skills with the challenges of my disability.
I would like to explore this question by finding others who have faced similar challenges, particularly women. However, although it is becoming more and more acceptable to talk about women's need for flexibility in the workplace, disability is still considered a very taboo, almost shameful, subject. Asking someone about their disability is impolite, and discussing something that is viewed as a weakness could lead to serious professional repercussions for everybody involved. Another challenge is that in my situation, and that of many others, the disability is invisible, which leads others to believe that the invisibly disabled are lying, lazy, selfish, and ineffective. As a professional who has found success in addressing challenging situations faced by women in the workplace, do you have any advice on how to approach the very delicate topic of addressing disabled women's desire to advance their careers, or even on how to find mentors who would be willing to share their advice about this challenge?
Just like being a woman is not shameful, I do not see my disability as shameful. Those with disabilities need access to a dialogue as productive as that on the needs of women in the workplace, as they are still oppressed by inflexible workplace attitudes that regard illness as weakness. My illness does not make me less effective than a healthy worker. In fact, it gives me skills that others may not have, including an ability to adapt; a heightened ability to work calmly and effectively in the face of extremely ambiguous situations; and unwavering determination to achieve success, no matter the obstacle.
Thank you for your time.