The disabled, career counseling and employment

A Bermuda triangle in its own right

I believe everything worth reading should start with a good anecdote and so does this. When I was 16 and at the cusp of choosing a career, I changed education boards because that is what was expected of an expatriate in Dubai who planned to pursue medical education in Pakistan. When I went to give an entrance exam for the new school, I was detained in the Principal’s office where despite my outstanding O levels result she refused to enroll me into the Pre-Medical section due to my stammer saying that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the strenuous curriculum. Instead, she offered me a place in the supposedly less demanding sections such as Humanities or Commerce.

My ego hurt badly, I refused to settle for anything less than I was qualified for and somehow got a spot in the section I wanted. Over the next two years I proved the Principal wrong every time I scored the highest in my class and got a perverse satisfaction when I smugly received the Student of the Year Award from the same woman who had thought me less than any other student in that room. Over the past years I have regaled this story with a lot of satisfaction, receiving praise for standing up for my rights. But recently after facing unemployment regardless of being a dentist, I increasingly find myself thinking that perhaps I made the wrong choice and should have reached out to a career counselor when the situation presented itself. Career opportunities and realities are two vastly different concepts which are imperative to understand if a person with disability (PWD) wants to enter and succeed in the world of the employed.

Despite America being one of the forerunners in disability rights advocacy, the disparity between its non disabled and disabled employment statistics is glaring to say the least. As of 2016, 65% of persons without disabilities were employed while only 17.5% of people with disabilities held employment. If the issue of employment of PWDs is a herculean task in developed countries, one can have little hope in a third world country like ours. Unfortunately this is the very case in Pakistan where less than 1% of PWDs are represented in the workforce.

This got me thinking — where have we gone wrong and what can we do to fix it? Upon extensive research, it was found that Pakistan lacks a well developed network of career counselors. The ones available to the masses are usually students themselves, who lack formal training, have a vague presence on the internet and do not respond to even the most earnest emails sent to them. Deficiency of this crucial profession is evident in the fact that while our county churns out doctors and engineers by thousands every year, it does not produce enough imminent professionals in other fields. And while the non disabled community is being hurt by this immensely, the negative impact on the disabled community is tenfold because effective and responsive career counseling can significantly empower a person with a disability at several levels an if this is nonexistent one can only dream of a brighter future without any realization.

The need of the hour is a holistic approach where schools and career counselling agencies need to be equipped with specialized personnel who have a deep knowledge of both realities of the work world and how to recognize the true potential of a young PWD and help them make tentative career choices and then test them through fantasy, discussion and experience. Experimentally based assessments like interviews with employers, situational assessments and job shadowing is of immense importance to ensure success in obtaining and maintaining a fulfilling career. It is also noteworthy that conventional career counseling is of limited value in these situations and a career counselor should not only assist the employment process of the PWD but work with potential employers directly as well.

The world for the disabled has changed as it has for everyone. We are no longer bothered by physical barriers such as not being able to eat at a restaurant because it doesn’t have a wheelchair ramp. Instead it is the pervasive and hidden obstacles due to negative societal attitude which we need to shatter — the attitude that promotes beauty health and wellness and devalue anything or anyone who falls short of it. And this can only be done by empowering ourselves and making ourselves an indispensable part of the workforce.

There is a long road to traverse but my steps acquire more resolve every time I think of the three hearing impaired men in my small city’s bazaar who despite their disability work in their small shoe shop, refuse to bow down to discrimination and keep on making a difference in the world every day more than I could ever make in a lifetime.

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