When I grow up

Along for the Ride

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Dozens of posters line the walls between classrooms, each covered with markings of green and red, pink and orange. Some contain images of buildings and trees, while others have chalkboards, paintbrushes and sports equipment. In all of them, stick figures answer the question presented to their creators: what do you want to be when you grow up?

My response, taped at the far end of Naubuc Elementary School’s second-grade hallway, is an image of a girl in pigtails sitting in a wheelchair next to a dog. She is wearing a stethoscope, and her admiration for the animal next to her is evident even through the amateur scribbles.

Veterinary medicine was my first calling, and for some time I voraciously worked toward it. I spent hours devouring delectable dog encyclopedias and researching the details of each breed that I wanted to own. When I first got an email account, relatives would send me photos of dogs and I would eagerly reply with the breed and associated statistics for each one. I was a walking (or driving) library of information on dog intelligence rankings, grooming techniques and medical issues.

It took me a couple of years to realize that becoming a vet was not the most practical choice for me. Not only would I be unable to lift, test and treat animals, but I would struggle with fieldwork as well. I didn’t want to give up on this long-held dream, but I knew it wasn’t the best option for me.

I bounced around, landing on a different career path every week. I would be a lawyer, architect, epidemiologist, book reviewer — my interests spread far and wide, and there was no penalty for changing my mind. But at some point, I started to realize that the people who looked like me were all concentrated in certain niches and occupations.

Almost all the people with disabilities I know personally are in freelance and self-employed work, computer-based engineering or disability-related professions. It does make sense, as these are jobs that are tolerant of limited ability and that accommodate home-based employment well. But the fact that the other professions are devoid of disabled people means that they probably aren’t as accommodating and, as a result, these fields will likely not find it necessary to become so.

On the disabled-only social media pages that I’m part of, people regularly complain about the unwillingness of employers to understand and adapt to the limitations resulting from their disabilities. One friend told me, “The rest of the world isn’t built for people like us. We’re better off with our own kind.”

As a very idealistic person, I found this hard to accept, but I understood where she was coming from. This mentality is cultivated by the countless hoops disabled people have to jump through to find and secure employment in the “nondisabled world” and to move up the ladder after getting hired by fulfilling and exceeding job requirements intended for “normal” people. Some companies, such as Microsoft, are making progress through diversity initiatives that focus on hiring and retaining disabled employees. Notably, however, this shift is almost exclusive to those in lucrative industries, such as IT, where companies can afford to make the changes necessary to create an accommodating environment.

Because of my interest in quantitative fields, I hope to eventually get a job in the tech industry. Its trend towards accommodation also plays a big role in my desire to pursue technology over another one of my many, many other interests. But I’m not going to lie — the promise of a high salary and strong benefits is equally alluring.

I have two wheelchairs. One, my “primary,” was funded by insurance and cost more than a car. The other, my “home” chair, was funded by my parents (insurance does not cover two). Because it is only a manual chair converted to electric, they paid a fraction of the cost of my primary for it. But that’s still a lot of out-of-pocket costs, and I know that if I want the luxury of owning multiple pieces and types of equipment, I need to choose a job that lets me afford them.

Every doctor’s appointment, every surgery, and every admittance into the hospital is a bill that needs to be paid. Having a progressive medical condition means that I need insurance that will cover all these things thoroughly, so working for a company that has good benefits will minimize my premiums, copays and deductibles. As my parents have tried to impress upon me since I voiced my intent to be a veterinarian, there are so many perks to working in an industry where the work is not physically demanding and assures financial and coverage-related security. 

But I can’t help but feel a little boxed-in. As much as I would like the freedom to decide my path solely based on my passions, I know that I need to consider how my career affects my ability to live a stable and fulfilling life.

This time, bold posters with catchy slogans tell me that it’s career fair season here at UC Berkeley, and I find myself revisiting the question my second-grade teacher asked us all those years ago. When I grow up, I want to live in a world where people with disabilities are free to pursue whatever field they choose, safe in the knowledge that they can survive and thrive no matter what they do.

Vyoma Raman writes the Monday column on how mobility disabilities affect college life. Contact her at [email protected].