October Is Disability Employment Awareness Month
In recognition of Disability Employment Awareness Month, I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Andreasen, a Financial Services Advisor at Ashford University, about his life, his work, and his experiences as an individual with a disability.
When we sat down to speak, he explained that his job entails supporting students with all things related to financial aid. “I’m on the phone with students, helping them through their financial aid documents, answering financial aid questions…and going over responsible borrowing.” In addition to being a member of one of the most important support teams there is, Michael is also an Ashford graduate, a student pursuing his second degree, a husband, an athlete, and an advocate.
Finding a Fit
I first met Michael while working on a webinar about disability and the career search. The webinar was a collaboration between the Office of Student Access and Wellness and Career Services. While working with a Career Services Specialist was a wonderful experience, it was clear that the presentation was lacking something. After meeting Michael, it was obvious that “that something” was the first-hand perspective and experience of an individual living with a disability in the workplace.
“I do have a disability. I have hypochondroplasia, a form of dwarfism.” Michael smiled across the table as we sat in the conference room. He explained that there are barriers in the workplace that I never even considered. “I’ve always had to use Human Resources and go through ergonomics…it’s hard in the workplace to get adjusted to your work environment when you’re of a smaller stature.”
“The desks aren’t fit to meet those needs.”
I’d never thought about the challenges that Michael faced. He’s such an inspiring individual that the disability he lives with has always seemed nonexistent. Then I thought about standard desks, tables in the cafeteria, the stairs, and all of the challenges that a person with short stature might face. I was momentarily overwhelmed.
When I thought about the challenges Michael has to face, I thought of many other factors that could slow him down.
In his spare time he rides his bike as a member of the Challenged Athletes Foundation triathlon. “I biked 44 miles in 3 hours and 23 minutes.” The Challenged Athletes Foundation provides opportunities and support to people with physical disabilities so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics.
Michael went on to share that he was not the only person in his household living with a disability, his wife is also living with a form of dwarfism. “She’s full time in a wheel chair, and she is a prenatal genetic counselor at the University of California San Diego. She rocks it every day. Disability doesn't affect her.”
Disability in the Workplace: Barriers and Breakthroughs
Although Michael and his wife experience disability and have full, rewarding, professional lives, this experience isn’t the case for everyone. For many potential employers, the individual competency of a candidate can be overshadowed by negative social stigmas and misconceptions about what it means to employ a person with a disability. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.8 percent of persons with a disability were employed in 2012, compared to 63.9 percent of people without a disability (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). These numbers are what prompted the partnership between Ashford’s Career Services and Access and Wellness departments. This partnership seeks to empower student job seekers with the tools they need to be effective self-advocates during the job search and to understand their rights as potential employees with disabilities.
When asked about his college experience at Ashford, Michael was quick to point out the hard work done by the Access and Wellness Counselors in my office, “The Office of Student Access and Wellness was really good about giving a lot of information. It’s very user-friendly within the Ashford Student Portal, and there are a lot of resources they give out to students who need them…they try everything they can to make sure that you’re able to access and benefit from your education.”
Michael recently returned to school to study human resources. His dream is to work in human resources to provide his own perspective when assisting employees with disabilities. When asked about what drives him to keep pressing forward in his desire to help others, his answer is to the point: “I’m passionate about disability. I live it.”
Read more about Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Written by: Samuel Harvey
Sam is the Content Specialist for the Office of Student Access and Wellness at Ashford University.