October is that magical time of year when we witness the beautiful changes in the autumn leaves from green to all shades of browns, ambers and yellows. And, of course, it is the month of pumpkins and witches as we celebrate All Hallow’s Eve. But what many don’t know, however, is that October is also National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).
Although the effort to educate Americans about disability awareness is nothing new, there is still so much to be done. In 1945, Congress passed a law declaring a week in October, “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” The word “physically” was eventually removed and in 1988, Congress changed the law to its current name and expanded the week to a month.
That same year, I was a young college graduate. I had just received my degree in Journalism and couldn’t wait to get out there in the real world. Or so I thought.
One of my first interviews was with an advertising agency, I arrived for my Friday evening interview with the advertising manager (we’ll call her Kate). The office was quiet as everyone had gone home for the weekend. The interview went very well and Kate seemed to like me. In fact, when we finished, she handed me benefits information and told me to go home and think about it. The job, she said, was mine if I wanted it. She asked that I come back that Monday and meet with the president of the company.
I was so ecstatic. I never thought I’d start my career in advertising but you have to start somewhere. I went home and told my family and friends that I had a job. She did say it was mine if I wanted it, right?
Monday morning came and I arrived at the ad agency once again. Only this time, gone was the quiet office of the Friday before and in its place was all the hustle and bustle that you would expect of an ad agency. Kate came to greet me and brought me over to a table in the middle of a very busy and loud room where the president of the agency was waiting.
For those of you reading this that don’t know, I was born with cerebral palsy (CP) and because of this, I suffer from bilateral hearing loss. So as I sat there that day, at times, I had a hard time hearing this man. I didn’t think anything of it, however, and kindly asked “Mr. President” to repeat himself. After some time, Kate asked me to join her in her office. Naturally, I thought she was going to ask me when I could start.
But to say that I was in for a shock is an understatement. Kate closed the door of her office, looked at me and said, “Josephine, are you hearing impaired?” I was stunned and totally taken back by her question but I replied that I was. I also wanted to add that it would not affect my job performance but Kate didn’t give me the opportunity because she interrupted me saying, “Josie, let me give you some advice. GET OUT OF THE FIELD. YOU ARE NEVER GOING TO MAKE IT.”
OUCH! That hurt. To this day, I don’t remember how I got from her office to my car because I was numb. I don’t remember even replying to her, I just got up and saw myself to the door. Imagine someone telling you that you had basically wasted four years of your life because you were never going to amount to anything.
I do remember getting to my car and crying my eyes out. When I finally made it home, my wonderful mother came into my room and asked me what was wrong. When I told her what had happened she gave me a big reassuring hug and said, “Josie! Now, you listen to me. You’re not the one with the problem, they are! Those people are ignorant!” I wanted to believe my mother; I really did. But I spent a long time in a slump and it took me a while to believe in myself again.
Shortly after this interview in July 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. This civil rights law prohibits discrimination based on disability. Although things have definitely improved since then, the fight is not over.
Unfortunately, many employers still see the “DIS” in the word DISABILITY and do not see the “ABILITY.” Martin Luther King once said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin by the content of their character.” I, too, have a dream that one day people will be able to see the disabled for all their abilities and not their disabilities.
I wasn’t asking Kate for a free ride that day. I was asking for the opportunity to do a job that I was more than capable of doing. But as I’ve said many times, things happen for a reason. That encounter with Kate instilled a passion in me to never give up. I realized that no one was going to believe in me unless I believed in me.
Yes, I had to work hard at it. But I’m proud to say that Kate was so wrong. I did make it. I became a journalist, a communications consultant, an inventor, a bestselling author and a motivational speaker. People always ask me what I would say if I saw Kate today thinking that I would surely throw my success in her face.
Truthfully, however, I would thank her. Yes, I would. Had it not been for this experience and many other experiences in my life, I would not be the person that I am today. While it is true that there is very often misfortune and distress in adversity, if you look hard enough you will also find strength, determination and courage.
Please consider sharing this blog in an effort to help me get the word out about disability awareness. Thank you all so much for your support. www.josievarga.com
I would like to dedicate this blog to my beautiful friend, Geri Jewell (pictured with me on this page). Geri is best known for her role as Cousin Geri on the NBC sitcom, “The Facts of Life.” In fact, she was the first person with a disability to have a regular role on a prime time series. She recently completed her wonderful autobiography: I’m Walking as Straight as I Can. For more information, please visit www.gerijewell.com.