22. Working Disabled

My work record is very spotty. As a man with physical challenges, I guess I’m lucky to have any work record at all. These days, I’m even luckier not to need a job anymore.

When I moved for good to the U.S. about 20 years ago, I never thought that anyone would hire me. This was based on my experience in Italy. There, a government agency places disabled people on a list for employment. My name went on the list when I was 18 or so. To this day, I am waiting to hear about a job opening for me.

Twenty years ago, it was much easier to find work, even though I spoke English poorly, I had little schooling, and I have some physical impairment.

Let me tell you what it’s been like as a person with a disability to work at a low-level job with able-bodied people: miserable.

I did not mind that the only jobs that I could get were of the janitorial type. When I worked, I took pride in doing the best job I could. I can sweep, mop, and clean with the best of them. My supervisors often praised me for my work. The problem was usually my co-workers.

For a few months, I worked at a restaurant on a military base. As a “kitchen aide,” I mopped the floor, took out trash, and washed pots and pans. My supervisor, the head chef, was an old veteran who had worked in military-base kitchens for decades. He treated me all right, and I respected him.

However, one of the other kitchen aides took it upon herself to try to boss me around. She did not pull that on any other co-worker; she enjoyed lording it over me. I ignored her as much as I could and did the chores for which I was responsible. She would complain to the chef about me, and when he began to tell me to do the things that the woman wanted, I knew it was time to leave.

The administrator who had hired me was astonished when I told her my reason for quitting. She asked why I had not told her earlier about the problem with the co-worker. What could I say? I was the last one hired in the kitchen, and it would have been my word against the woman’s. And what if I had been believed and the woman had been chastised – how would that have played out in the kitchen? The job was not worth all that trouble.

Another time, I found a job at a charter bus company, cleaning the interior of the buses. At first, there about five of us on the late-night crew. One of the guys would tell me about his kids and their involvement in sports. Unlike others on the crew, this guy asked me about my life, and he seemed genuinely interested. I thought I was making a friend.

Once, as I came around one end of a bus, I see the guy entertaining the others with his imitation of my stilted walk and my slightly slurred speech. They all laughed and laughed, until they saw me. I didn’t say anything. Neither did the guy, ever.

Over the following couple of months, the team dwindled. Most of the members were clocking out long before the work was completed. It got to the point that, most nights, it was just me and my de facto supervisor left to clean the interiors of up to 30 buses before they could be run through the exterior washing system. Instead of going home at 3 a.m., I was leaving at 5 a.m. or later.

Then I found out that a couple of new members of the crew, young guys who never stayed as long as they should have, had been hired at a higher hourly rate than me. When I told my real boss that this was not fair, considering all I had been doing for the company, he declared that I would not get a raise and to “take it or leave it.” So I left.

I could go on and on. Such as the time that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that I had been discriminated against and could sue for a permanent position as a school custodian – but I would have to front $25,000 to a lawyer first. Or the time that my co-workers were trying to set me up for a harassment complaint.

Thank goodness for my wife, who has made my life easier in so many ways. Still, I feel like my life, my abilities, and my energy have been wasted as I sit at home with nothing useful to do.

The employment landscape has changed so much in the last 10 or 12 years. Employers began requiring high school diplomas and perfect English even for menial positions. And if you’re over the age of 40 and not in 100 percent good physical condition, don’t even bother to apply.

I shudder to think how much harder it will be for disabled people to find work in the post-COVID-19 world.

Long Way to Go — Propriano, Corsica courtesy of “Anton”

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