I’m having a challenging year. When I left my law firm, at what seemed like a natural moment in my career to part ways, I was looking for in-house work, and also to step up my disability consulting. I was very excited about my next adventure, and not terribly focused on what I was leaving behind. A year has passed, or near enough, and I have begun to understand what being a lawyer, and by most accounts a successful one, meant to me. Certainly, it was a source of financial security, and I miss that security keenly. Until a few weeks ago, however, it was hard for me to verbalize what I was really missing.
In early September, I was approached by an organization to come on board to help them draft a simple contract. Over the course of the work, I got to flex my mental muscles, practice my craft, be recognized for my skill, and contribute to the needs of the organization. And yes, I got paid.
But the money, a sum that is less than what I have received for simple research from other, better funded clients, was and is secondary. For those weeks, I got to feel useful again, talented again, a net creator of value.
And that was what I missed but I could not have articulated. I missed the sense that my efforts and my skills were providing real value for someone else.
When you get down to it, this is something that I have taken for granted. I can point to accomplishments from every nonacademic period in my life from age 16 onward. Whether as an intern pointing to specific projects, a tutor pointing to students, or, later, a lawyer pointing the clients served, I have been able to say that my life was providing particular value to a defined set of beneficiaries.
The sense of being valuable is so central to my identity that I never could have articulated it until I lost it. It was my solace through times of difficulty, and my source of confidence to maximize times of growth and opportunity. It framed every challenge, and every justification in my own mind for the massive investment of effort and love that others place in me. Not because they require it, but because I need it.
As we come to the end of National Disability Employment Month, I encourage folks to explore the question of disability employment through a different lens. The poverty of people with disabilities is a heart-wrenching but often explored topic. Absolutely, we need employment to break that cycle. But there is more.
Rich or poor, disability or no, I feel that there is something fundamental to the human condition about feeling useful. Though the vast majority of unemployed people with disabilities struggle financially, there are plenty who live comfortably on family wealth, injury settlements, insurance policies or some other source. I bet if we were to survey them, even if money is not a concern, the vast majority would indicate a preference to add value to the world with their lives.
This, then, is the ultimate value in creating a society where people with disabilities can and do work, and by work I will include anything from top dollar salaries to donated time, provided value is being created. There is nothing quite like the feeling of being useful, of knowing what you have to offer the world, and having the opportunity to offer it.
For so many people with disabilities, despite having so much to offer, whether strength or smarts, insight or compassion, companionship or fiery activism, today’s world doesn’t offer that opportunity. And so we are left to feel less, somehow. Perhaps loved, maybe even cherished, but not needed.
Speaking from experience, feeling valued and needed is a huge component of an increased sense of self-worth and well-being. Even as society benefits from having its needs met, and people with disabilities benefit from whatever tangible compensations come from their talents, we all benefit as we begin to recognize the value and each and every person.
So let’s continue our efforts. Employment, yes. But for those of us for whom compensated employment is either temporarily or permanently unavailable, I recommend, in the words of curmudgeons everywhere, to make yourself useful. You may be amazed at the benefits, not just to you but to society. And for those working on the employment of people with disabilities, think outside the box. We talk about employment first, I want to push the envelope further and include more people by saying value first.
I have no genius solutions, I am merely sharing a little bit of recently earned self-knowledge. Thanks for reading.