On Monday January 28, our community woke up to a snowstorm. It seemed every school and business decided to close except the office where I work. I felt bad that my mom had to get outside early and shovel the snow off of our driveway because the neighbor we contract with to plow our driveway hadn’t been able to get there yet, and I felt bad that Mom had to drive in such nasty weather. But I actually didn’t mind going to work because my job no longer causes me anxiety, and with my part-time schedule, I would be off the next day when the weather was actually predicted to be worse. The weather was miserable, but life was good. The prospect of applying for another job was the furthest thing from my mind that morning. But that afternoon in the car on the way home from work, I noticed that I had a voicemail on my cell phone. I decided not to listen to it right away because I had a headache that day, and I didn’t even recognize the number so I figured it was a telemarketer. My bible study group was cancelled that night due to the weather, so after a wonderful bowl of vegetable soup and a salad, I took some Ibuprofen and went upstairs to my bedroom for a nap. About an hour later when I woke up feeling a lot better, I decided I should probably check that voicemail just to make sure it wasn’t a telemarketer. Ultimately, I guess I’m glad I listened to that message, but as I struggled through the intense anxiety this message forced me to confront the rest of that week, I sure wished it had been a telemarketer.
The voicemail was from a social worker that worked at a local nonprofit organization for the blind. This social worker had actually known me since I was practically a baby, where she worked at the Center for Blind and Visually Impaired Children, a preschool program for the blind I attended at that time. In 2011, the Center for Blind and Visually Impaired Children merged with a larger organization that serves people of all ages living with vision loss, so she now worked for this larger organization. She wanted to speak with me about a position opening up at this organization. I went to this organization’s web site where I have found job postings in the past, but that night there were no jobs listed. It was too late to call that night, but at first I was excited and intrigued. As I have mentioned, my current job is not my life’s calling, but I had found such peace with my new position exclusively filing appeals, and in my schedule, that I decided I wasn’t going to look for a new job anymore. The state government rarely had any positions I felt qualified for, and besides I was tired of asking Mom to drive me to Madison for fruitless interviews. And as for the public job boards like indeed.com, I might as well have just dropped job applications into a blackhole. I was so tired of pouring my heart and soul into customizing a cover letter and tailoring my resume for employers that rarely contacted me one way or the other about the application. So I decided that I would never deal with job boards unless I had to, such as if the lawfirm decided to go a different direction and I was laid off. Unless or until that happened, I would just go about this peaceful life, and if God wanted me in another job, He would bring the job offer to me. Maybe this call was that job offer from God I had been waiting for.
I used to balk at the idea of working for an organization that serves the blind because it just seemed cliché. It certainly would make the learning curve for the job a lot easier, as the organization would already have technology in place to make the job accessible. But in a strange way, perhaps because I received a mainstream education from kindergarten on, I identified with sighted people more than blind people. In fact, I remember feeling so strange a couple times when I went to events for the blind because I was so used to being the only blind person in the room that I actually had to figure out how to communicate with blind people. For example, at one meeting of blind students I attended in high school, the leader wanted to take a vote on something, so she passed around a bag and told us to put a penny in the bag to vote one way, and a nickel to vote another. The bag started with me, and after I put my coin in, I held the bag out to the next person assuming they would take it seamlessly just like when passing things around at school, but they weren’t taking it. Hello! Are you awake? Why aren’t you taking the bag I’m trying to pass you? I remember thinking to myself. Oh that’s right! They aren’t taking the bag because they don’t know I’m trying to pass it because they cannot see it! I’m not the only blind person in the room anymore! So I reached over and tapped the person on the shoulder, told them I was passing the bag to them, and shook it so they could follow the sound and take it. I don’t think I actually shared this funny internal dialog with other blind friends, but I still laugh about it to myself all these years later. I always understood the value of gathering with peers who are blind every now and then. It is fun to be able to just talk with someone about the braille code, guide dog issues, or computer software for the blind without having to preface it with any explanations of terminology which is necessary when talking to sighted people, and as the experience passing the bag indicates, it is healthy to have exposure to your own kind every now and then, just as it is healthy for birds raised by humans to spend time with other birds to learn how to relate to birds. When I did my temporary work experience with Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement in 2013, I enjoyed commiserating with other blind people on several occasions about things we wished were more accessible. But as much as I enjoyed that position, even at that age there was still a part of me that felt like after growing up with mainstream education and adapting so well to the sighted world, I shouldn’t settle for a job at an organization for the blind, which I feared would be akin to living in isolation on a blind colony. But with maturity, I realized this trepidation was silly. In fact, there is no way to fully isolate yourself on a blind colony even if you wanted to. The reality is that most people in the world can see, so even if everyone in my office is blind, living in the world requires interaction with sighted people to walk down the street, shop at the grocery store, enjoy a meal in a restaurant, participate in activities like choir and bible study, or even conduct business with other agencies. Even if everyone in my office were blind, there is no way I would lose touch with the sighted world, and my mainstream education would not go to waste.
In my younger days, I also hesitated to consider a job with an organization that serves the blind because I feared this would send a message to the world that my blindness defined me. In fact, when I would hear about a cancer survivor working at a cancer research organization, or a black person getting a job with the NAACP, I used to think, wouldn’t you want to steer clear of those organizations to show the world there is more to you than your cancer survival, or the racial injustices you may have experienced? I had these judgmental thoughts because I myself feared that if I did the same thing by working at an organization for the blind, the world would think that my blindness defined me. I was not upset or uncomfortable with my blindness at all. I just felt like I should work for a cause completely unrelated to blindness. In my interaction with coworkers in this unrelated cause, I would be happy to answer questions about how I became blind and how I adapted, but the very act of working for an unrelated cause would show them that I viewed blindness as a small part of who I am, but not the focus of my life. But with maturity, I have come to better appreciate that God inspires so many cancer survivors to work at cancer research organizations, and blind people to work in organizations for the blind because we are the most qualified to serve in these areas because we have firsthand experience living with the struggles these organizations address. God didn’t intend for there to be such adversity when He created the world, but since the Fall brought it about, he wants to use this adversity for good. For example, organizations for the blind play a critical role in helping people new to blindness accept and adapt to it, and if I were standing in the shoes of someone new to such a lifechanging condition, I would find the testimony that a happy fulfilling life is possible a lot more believable if it came from another blind person, than from a sighted person who may have wonderful intentions and be extremely knowledgeable about the adaptations available for the blind, but has never experienced the challenges of being blind firsthand. In fact, in 2012 when I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease requiring me to eat a strict gluten-free diet for life, some members of my family were surprised at the difficulty I had accepting and adjusting to this lifechanging condition, and I see their point. For a sighted person, losing the ability to eat gluten would be small potatoes compared to losing your sight. But I was used to being blind because I had been blind since I was about seven months old. So with this new diagnosis, I experienced a similar sense of grief that I imagine is experienced by adults who lose their vision. What would holidays and social situations be like now in our food-centered culture, and my food-centered family culture? Would I ever really be able to enjoy a meal in a restaurant again? My parents were incredibly supportive, but it wasn’t until I heard about and joined a local group of other people with Celiac Disease that went out to dinner once a month that I truly believed a happy gathering in a restaurant was possible, and I would still be able to enjoy food. I don’t believe God caused my Celiac Disease, but perhaps thinking back on it, it was a wonderful moment to teach me what it is like to face a lifechanging diagnosis as an adult, and to show me the incredible comfort that can be found by reaching out to people who have successfully adjusted to the condition, so that I wouldn’t underestimate the ray of hope I could bring to the life of someone grieving the loss of his/her sight someday.
All of these thoughts came to my mind as I picked up the phone to return this friend’s call the next morning. Maybe God was ready to use me for a higher purpose. I was going to talk to this friend about this position with an open mind. She told me the office was seeking someone that would be a receptionist, as well as an assistant to the leadership team. That was all she knew about the job, but she gave me the name of someone else to contact who had all of the details regarding the position. She said if it wasn’t something I was interested in, that was fine. She just thought of me and wanted to make me aware of the position. So I contacted this person, who forwarded my e-mail to HR who sent me the official job announcement, and also asked me to send her my phone number because she would like to speak with me to give me more details about the position. But as soon as I read the job announcement, all excitement and intrigue disappeared. It reminded me too much of the hopelessness and anxiety I felt as a case manager, especially when one of the job requirements outlined was the “ability to complete work independently with broadly defined work objectives and limited oversight.” On top of that, it would require me to work full-time again, 10am to 5pm Monday through Friday plus some evening and weekend commitments, thereby giving up the work-life balance I have come to cherish so much. I was willing to take this risk if something amazing came my way, like a job in the journalism field, or an opportunity to write articles for an organization that served the blind. But to trade this beautiful life for a receptionist job and a return to the anxiety I was so grateful to break free from just over two years ago wasn’t a trade I was interested in. “I don’t like it,” I told my mom as I walked into the kitchen after reading the announcement. “I’m going to reply and say thank you but I’m not interested.” Mom, who usually supports the decisions I make was not in favor of this decision. She argued that if I blew off this opportunity, I would be making a huge career mistake that I may one day regret. This was an opportunity to get my foot into the door of an organization for the blind, and one that may never come around again because when you blow someone off, they are not as inclined to think of you when future opportunities arise. She reminded me that most CEO’s started as office assistants, as this is the best way to really learn all aspects of the organization so that one day I could be a leader in this organization and the blind community. She also argued that working full-time for this nonprofit agency would be different than working full-time at the lawfirm. For one thing, she pointed out that the hours I would work most days, 10am to 5pm amounted to work days that were an hour and a half shorter than the days at the lawfirm where I worked 8am to 4:30pm. That, combined with the fact that it was an organization that served the blind where all aspects of the job would be accessible, meant that at the end of each work day, I wouldn’t feel totally burnt out and thus could still enjoy choir, bible study, writing, all the things I enjoyed now. Usually, Mom’s reassuring words are enough to comfort me, but in this case, I just couldn’t get myself to think positive thoughts about this job. Dad also agreed that I should try for the job, just to gain practice with job interviews if nothing else, and that I may not even get the job, in which case I would have nothing to worry about. If I did get the job, it was my choice whether to actually accept the position. But I had a paralyzing fear that I would get the position. I was blind after all, and sometimes blind people have an edge when it comes to jobs with organizations for the blind. And due to my education, and the fact that numerous people in this organization knew me meant that I might really have an edge over other candidates. If I did get offered the position, I would feel an enormous sense of guilt if I didn’t accept it. Later if I did get laid off by the lawfirm, would I regret turning down a job offer with this wonderful organization for the blind that recruited me? But on the other hand, if my anxiety came to fruition and the job wasn’t going well, what would I fall back on? Mom imagined this job would be similar in many ways to the job I had at Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement that I enjoyed so much. Sure it would be full-time and more challenging, but the environment would be accessible and friendly. If it turned out that I wasn’t happy with the job, I would at least have developed more skills and experience that I could transfer to another job such as a state government position.
Mom wanted me to send the HR person my phone number that afternoon, but I could not muster up the courage to write the e-mail until Wednesday morning. If she had acted on the e-mail and called me right away Tuesday, I think I would have had a panic attack and made a fool of myself on the phone. When I did write the e-mail, Mom was agrevated when I told her that I had written that I wasn’t ready to commit one way or the other to the position, but was open to speaking with her. She said this sounded negative and presumptuous, and I could see where she was coming from, but I didn’t know what to say. How was I supposed to sound positive when I wasn’t feeling positive at all. I promised Mom from this point forward I would show a positive attitude. We agreed that I could be honest about my past work experience in which things weren’t fully accessible which caused me anxiety, but Mom was confident I could master this job if I got it since all aspects of it would be accessible. So I talked to the HR person for an hour on the phone Thursday morning. On Friday while I was at work, she called because the outreach director wanted me to come in for an interview. I wasn’t feeling well Friday night, but first thing Saturday morning, I called the HR person back and an interview was scheduled for Tuesday February 5. But when she told me the outreach director wanted a copy of my resume, my anxiety flared up again. The thought of having to sit down and update my resume literally brought me to tears. I had absolutely no gumption to update my resume because what the heck would I say on it? My brother and his girlfriend came home that weekend, and I tried to be pleasant and sociable, even going through the motions of playing Trivial Pursuit with them, but my heart wasn’t in anything that weekend, and every conversation with Mom that weekend ended with me sobbing and her getting exasperated. Some of you readers might be thinking I could have just stood up for myself and refused to apply for the position, telling Mom I was an adult who wished to make my own decisions. But even in the thick of my anxiety, I recognized on some level that I was not thinking rationally. Maybe Mom was right and I was simply suffering from a severe lack of self-confidence. I didn’t want to do something I might regret sometime down the road
So on Saturday evening after my brother and his girlfriend had gone home, my parents watched a movie, and I went up to my room, took some deep breaths, focused my mind on the positive aspects of the job and spent all evening updating and proofreading my resume. I was going to submit it at 12:30 that night when I felt satisfied with it, but decided to wait until morning and let Mom look it over to make sure there weren’t any mistakes I had missed. I still wasn’t thrilled about the job, and found my mind slipping into negativity as I crawled into bed with thoughts of the work-life balance I would lose. I even felt compelled to read a blog post I had written about the euphoria I felt that first Sunday in church after going part-time when the pastor preached from the book of Joshua about taking new ground with the intention of reminding myself of the life I would be giving up if I returned to full-time work in a position with “broadly defined objectives.” But to my surprise, while I was reminded of that euphoria, it occurred to me that while two years ago, trusting God and taking new ground meant going part-time, maybe two years later, God was asking me to trust Him and take new ground again with this position. With that, I decided that I would give this resume, and my interview Tuesday my best effort, and trust that everything would work out as it was meant to. The only compromise my mom and I made was that I was going to approach the resume and interview with an attitude of full disclosure. Conventional wisdom would say that you should not indicate on your resume that you couldn’t handle your previous position and thus took on a position with fewer responsibilities. I think I spun it positively when I mentioned that the only reason I couldn’t handle being a case manager was because aspects of the position were not accessible. But I made sure it was plainly stated on my resume that I was moved to a position with less responsibility because if I did get offered this position, I didn’t want it to be under false pretenses. If I were offered the job despite my honesty regarding past negative experience with a similar position, then I felt like I could have confidence that God really intended for me to have this position. I think Mom understood where I was coming from, even if she didn’t fully agree.
On Tuesday morning, Mom and I went to the large group worship and lecture portion of our women’s bible study, but skipped the small group discussion to give me more time to eat lunch and get dressed up for the interview. On the way home, Mom even stopped at the carwash so that I wouldn’t get salt and dirt on my suit if I brushed against the car. After lunch, I printed extra copies of my resume just in case a paper copy was requested, and found the fancy folder, bag and suit that I wore to my interviews for state government positions three years earlier. I usually brush my own hair, but I let Mom help me with it to make sure it looked extra neat, and in the car, I could even feel Mom picking a couple pieces of lint off my pants. Just as a college professor advised, I acted professional from the moment I left the house, and formally introduced myself to the receptionist when I arrived, even though I had known him for years. After showing me to a chair in the waiting room, Mom went to a nearby Mcdonalds until I called rather than staying in the waiting room so that I would be fully independent. At 1:00, the outreach director came and escorted me via sighted guide to her office where the interview would be conducted. On the way, we made small talk and she indicated she remembered me from events I attended as a child. But after that, the dialog was strictly professional. Just as in the interviews for state government positions, I couldn’t pick up any feedback from the outreach director or the marketing director. After I answered one question, they moved right onto the next question. In the interview, I continued my positive but transparent approach. In my conversation with the HR person, I had asked if there was a career trajectory beyond this position because I was happy to start as an office assistant, but ultimately dreamed of a career in writing or politics. The interviewers were aware of this sentiment and asked how I would approach the current position. I clarified that what I had meant was that I didn’t see myself as an office assistant long-term, but recognized it as an excellent starting point with this wonderful organization, and that as long as I held the position, I would approach it with a positive attitude and give it my best.
At the end of the interview, I was told the HR person would contact me either way regarding the position, and they anticipated making a decision in a week or so. But to my astonishment, when I got off work the following day, Mom told me the HR person had called, and left me a voicemail saying they had chosen another candidate for the position, but the credentials on my resume were outstanding, and she would keep me in mind if a future opportunity arose. I know it’s not healthy to have a cynical attitude about life, but all of the rejection letters and phone calls I have received when I was looking for work after college said something to that effect. Maybe they did keep my resume and an opportunity legitimately never arose, but everytime I got one of these rejections, I couldn’t help suspecting that these words of encouragement were just generic words, and my resume was already in the trash can before the ink even dried on the letter. It is possible this organization could be the exception as there are people there that know me, and this organization values fair employment opportunities, especially for the blind whom it serves. If they do contact me again, I will try to assess that job with an open mind as well. But that night with that rejection message, a sense of relief washed over me. I could sleep at night knowing I did not blow off what might have been an opportunity sent by God, but since the job wasn’t meant for me, the work-life balance and lack of anxiety I had come to cherish would not be upended. At the same time though, the fact that I didn’t get this job has intensified my anxiety about losing my current job. Since I already had a job I was happy with, I could afford to be authentic at this interview. I indicated a willingness to learn new skills and a positive attitude about doing something more challenging, but I was upfront regarding my anxiety about the position. But the reality is, authentic is all I know how to be. Even in the interviews for state government positions which at the time I desperately wanted because I was miserable as a case manager and for some reason was too prideful to speak up, I realize in hindsight that I wasn’t gushing with confidence, didn’t really sell myself as much as experts would say I should have. When I was invited for the interview for my current job, the job developer I was working with at that time accompanied me, and although we had practiced how to approach job interviews, I didn’t say much. He gushed with positivity for me, touting how smart and self-motivated and awesome I was, and sweetened the pot with some benefits the state could offer, including paying my wages for a three month trial period, and I was pretty much hired on the spot. My point is, I have never been offered a job after attending the job interview all by myself. Sometimes I even wonder if I would have been offered my current job if I had attended the interview all by myself. It is possible I still would have gotten the position because the law firm where I work is a more casual atmosphere, and casual atmospheres are a better fit for my personality, so I might have felt at ease and interviewed well by myself. I still wore a fancy suit to the interview, but soon found out that at this office, everyone dresses business casual since most client contact is on the phone anyway. The managers were also casual in the way they conducted the interview, showing personality, and asking some scripted questions but also engaging in natural conversation. I was so taken aback after my first stiff, scripted interview for a state government position, but was told this is more typical. Sure enough, every interview since then has been stiff and scripted. Whether or not I would have gotten my current job if I had gone to the interview by myself really isn’t worth wasting time thinking about I know. What matters is I got the job, and everyone in the office seems to like me. Even when I struggled to handle the tasks asked of me as a case manager, they must have still liked me. They could have fired me, but they recognized that most if not all of the mistakes I was making were simply due to the fact that the position turned out not to be as accessible as we had thought at the time of the interview, so they gave me another chance with a more appropriate position, a position in which I have thrived.
But if I lost my job, I don’t know if I would qualify for state assistance finding another job. I think someone told me during the process that by working with a job developer to find this first job, I would acquire the skills necessary to find my own employment in the future. For this interview at the organization for the blind, I obviously did not have to downplay the fact that I am blind, but the unfortunate reality is that in a world where many people, even in professional settings, are unaware of the capabilities of people who are blind, self-confidence, and the ability to sell yourself are even more critical, but even if I weren’t blind, the job interview game is just not a game I was cut out to play. Just wearing a fancy suit that you don’t even want to brush against a dirty car makes me nervous. While intellectually I know I am intelligent and capable, I feel disengenuous if I gush with self-confidence about how I am perfect for the position, especially since there is always at least one duty or skill in the job description that the ideal candidate would have experience with, but which I don’t. I kind of understand why interviewers show no personality or emotion. They have more candidates than available positions, and so they need to examine each candidate as objectively as humanly possible. But at each of the interviews I have been to, the interviewer says some version of “you are interviewing us as much as we are interviewing you.” But in reality, I feel as though neither of us are getting an accurate sense of who we really are. If I had to judge a job by the interview alone, I wouldn’t want to work anywhere. I am sure in reality, the people aren’t scripted and devoid of emotion, but I really would have no way of knowing for sure unless I was offered the position and accepted it. Likewise, in a more natural setting, I am not the nervous person who rambles too long when asked a question and lacks self-confidence. But that is the only part of me the interviewer has the opportunity to see. Just as I have heard there are many students who are extremely intelligent, but have test anxiety and thus do terribly on standardized tests, I wonder how many potentially awesome employees companies are overlooking because like me, they don’t interview well, or aren’t comfortable being disingenuous and “playing the game” by selling themselves.
I know companies are averse to taking risks, but I would love to see more companies replace the job interview with a job shadow program. A company could post on a job board that they are looking for an employee, but keep the job posting short. Maybe they could include some general information about the company and the services they provide, but avoid the often ridiculously long list of job duties and “skills the ideal candidate would possess” lists that always frighten people like me. The companies could include basic requirements like character references. They could even call the applicant’s previous employer to ask about misconduct. Just as with people with felony convictions on their record, companies should make an effort to give people fired for misconduct a second chance, especially if there is evidence that they have repented, or they can be placed in a position unrelated to the previous position where misconduct was committed. But they should not list any requirements as far as years of experience. I know training someone with no experience takes time, costs money and may result in some clients complaining when mistakes will inevitably be made. Even I groan when I go to a restaurant and get the waitress still in training who does occasionally mess up the order. But it is a price we must all be more willing to accept because speaking from experience, I can tell you that nothing shreds the self-confidence of a college graduate looking for her first job like seeing a requirement of three or five years experience on almost every single job announcement! How are recent college graduates supposed to gain work experience if very few companies post announcements that are welcoming and will give them those first years of experience? Or what if someone like me decides they want to explore a different, completely unrelated career? I saw a PBS News segment several months ago about how career change is difficult because even if someone went back to a technical college and took some classes for this career, companies are often reluctant to give them a chance. How many potentially awesome employees are companies overlooking because they are afraid to take a risk and invest in people? Then, of the candidates who meet basic requirements, companies could call them in the order their application was received and conduct an informal interview in which the employer could assess basic courteousness, and the candidates could ask questions about the company and the open positions. Then, the employer could invite them for a week of unpaid job shadowing. This way, the candidates could get a real sense of what the job is like. On breaks, the candidates and the employee he/she is shadowing could exchange feedback, and also have a little bit of natural conversation. If the employee sees dog hair on the candidate’s clothes for example, they could talk about their dogs. Obviously there would need to be some common sense boundaries especially if the candidate does not end up being hired. But by allowing the candidate to actually observe the job they would be doing, allowing the company to see the perspective employee in the actual day-to-day work setting, and allowing for some natural conversation unrelated to work, the candidate would have a better idea as to whether they are a good fit for the company and vice versa. At the end of that week, the candidate and the employer could meet to discuss how the week went, and at that point, either party could choose whether or not to go further. I have not done any research on the practicality of implementing something like this, and thus I am sure more business savvy people will call me too idealistic. I indicated it should be a week of job shadowing because the first day doing anything new is always overwhelming, at least for me. By the end of the first day of school, a new job, anything, I always came home with a headache. A week offers a little more time to adjust and get an accurate picture of the new routine in your mind. But even if only one day of shadowing is practical, I think it would be a more accurate method for candidates and companies to “interview” each other than the current hiring game, a game I hope I don’t have to participate in for a long time. Or maybe, if I lost my job, I could look into starting my own business and avoid the hiring game all together by being my own boss. Every year when I write letters of appreciation to Mom for Mother’s Day and Dad for Father’s Day, I wonder if I could start a business helping busy people who struggle to find the right words write letters of appreciation to family or friends. And if this business became successful enough that I needed to hire employees, I, by being my own boss, would have the liberty to put this idealistic hiring method to the test.