Research on Employment Supports for People with Disabilities: Summary of the Focus Group Findings. Individual Motivation

One factor apparent throughout all of the focus groups and across all disabilities was the importance of both purpose and determination in contributing to successful employment outcomes among participants. Many participants made explicit references to the value of being motivated and resourceful, both to secure benefits and later to secure employment.12

Numerous participants described the challenge in learning the complex set of benefits available to adults with disabilities. For many, success in navigating this structure was related to desire:

  • "I just started making phone calls that would lead to another phone call and another. Coming from a small city there's just not the resources and you don't hear about them. I think what drove me was that I couldn't pay $500 per month [for medications], so I was going to find different options."

  • "You do what you've got to do…You know how to be creative. Whereas somebody else may look at what the procedure is, you're looking more at, ‘How can we make this happen?'…It's just a matter of at some point you have to kind of take responsibility and just kind of go after it…I'm a survivor at heart. I think that that's a good trait to some extent because I've always done what I've had to do to get my basic needs met."

  • "I was depending on public transportation, which we all know is the worst, especially if you're a wheelchair user. I would go to school. It started at nine o'clock, [so] I would leave home at seven o'clock in the morning, get passed up by several busses; [the driver would say,] ‘Sorry, buddy, my lift doesn't work'…I got to the point where I was so damn frustrated I [decided] to try to get my own car. So I started hustling. I was going to get a car; I was determined. Once again, my determination [paid off, and] my financial aid money backed my loans and I had a car."

Another said that understanding his strengths and limitations within the labor market motivated him to develop more marketable skills:

  • "I went with most of my buddies, they were transitioning from school into jobs which I really knew I couldn't have. Be realistic, certain jobs you might as well scratch off your list. That alone just gave me the motivation to start seeking adventures. In other words, start researching…what worked for me. I went a year to vocational school, mostly in clerical, computer classes. Crappy skills which probably six months after I got the certificate were [obsolete] in the real world. You couldn't challenge [yourself] with those skills. So I went back to school. I went to college and started as a full-time student."

Numerous others described the importance of self-reliance in seeking employment:

  • "I had lots of off-and-on types of jobs. I had jobs through the community college, looked into the Disabled Student Services…I remember going to the employment office when I needed to find work, and [it was,] ‘Go to the Department of Rehab, go to the Department of Rehab, go to the Department of Rehab.' I'm like, ‘I can go anywhere. I don't have to go just to the Department of Rehab."

  • "Everywhere I went, everywhere, I just kept asking and looking for work."

  • "My first job, I applied at a heating and cooling company, and I did that on my own."

  • "I was very aggressive and persistent all the time…"

  • "I wouldn't have gotten any job I've ever had without contacts. It's one of those elemental things they always tell sighted people: It's not what you know, it's who you know. But it's really true. One of the best job seeking advice things I ever saw in a book was sit down and write down the name of every person you've ever met, every person you know, no matter how inconceivable, and just imagine yourself how could this person possibly help me or what does this person do that they could possibly introduce me to. It sounds really cold-blooded but it's actually -- a lot of people really want to be helpful to other people if you can just tell them how."

Participants also described the importance of self-reliance in maintaining and advancing in employment:

  • "I started my job in '97, and I probably lasted longer on this job than most of my buddies had on one job but then again, it's just something I have inside of me. It's not just like I could quit this job and get another job tomorrow. It's not that easy. There's a lot of challenges you've got to go through but I'm willing to take the challenges but one day at a time, too."

  • "I saved up some SSI money and bought me a truck, and I had my own business. A recycling business, and I went around with my pick-up truck and picked up washing machines, stoves, ovens, water heaters…I'd tear them apart and get all the copper and aluminum and I'd take it to the junk yard and sell it, and they would pay me for that."

  • "[VR provided me with] training into a job but I had possessed the skills as an advocate myself. For [my current job], I did my own job development."

  • An individual who acquired a disability as the result of a car accident said: "When I left [the hospital], when I got back into the real world, so to say, now it was different, definitely different. But there was a motivation that's always been in me… I refuse to quit. I'm always on the go. I carry my regular 40-hour job, I have an Internet business now. I'm a wheelchair referee for able-bodied basketball with the LA high schools, and I also play wheelchair basketball. My belief is if I can't be happy at what I'm doing then I won't do it. I'll change jobs and right now I have a great job."

For some, the desire to be independent was a key motivating factor:

  • "I just took it upon myself. I knew I had to do better than what I was doing living off the assistance from the state, I had to do better for my son. And I didn't know of any other programs. I took it upon myself and did it."

  • "Independence, I think, is the most important factor to me. I don't really want to have to depend on anybody."

  • "That is why I went to work, I wanted to be able to make it on my own somewhere."

One participant described how difficult it can be to face a disability every day:

  • "I have to look beyond [all my past pain] and that's where I got my strength from today to get beyond that, to break it off. What stays with me inside is today. It was hard for me to get through it, I was just determined…I want to go so far. [But] it's still with me. It's not noticeable but it's still with me. It hurts me inside because they say, ‘Oh, you're not disabled,' because…it works on the mind and…you feel ‘less than' and you feel ‘left by' and that causes a little problem…I'm beginning to wonder what disability actually means. How many categories before you're disabled?"

Participants also described the need to assert themselves in receiving needed accommodations at work:

  • "I wanted to…get into the high tech part of [computers] and I could not find any college that would put in the [accessible] computers and teach [the accessible] software [so] I could take the class. I approached the Braille Institute to tour training centers, and attended a seminar where they had the vice president of EarthLink's Customer Service come in. And at that time they were hiring. They accommodated me by giving me a workstation and, of course, training, office accommodations and other things, purchasing, of course, software."

  • "I had an issue with my previous boss where he actually called me into his office and said, ‘I'm becoming very concerned about your many absences.' And, I looked straight at him and said, ‘All of my absences are just for a few hours every couple of weeks or so and they're all for medical appointments. I have no choice but to go to my doctor.'"

  • "Everyone here I think would acknowledge that having good adaptive technology is important for acquiring the information you need for being able to do the logistical, mundane part of your job but we live in a pretty progressive world and mostly some of that's going to come along. I think the things that are really fundamental are the more intangibles: the belief that you're capable; the belief that you can fit in to your culture but at the same time that you take a measure of comfort and pride in who you are; the ability to say what you want; the ability to ask for what you need; and the ability to indicate what you don't need; the ability to be organized is probably something that blind people need to be more effective at. So I think advocacy, organization, and good training skills are those intangibles. Yeah, we all want to have access to graphics that we may not enjoy but mostly if you have the aptitude and the creativity and the self-initiative to live interactively, you can figure out the logistical challenges of obtaining access to something."

As described earlier, a number of participants said that experiences early in life motivated them to succeed. In particular, some were intent on proving wrong those who held low expectations for them:

  • "[My parents] were in a lot of denial. They were supportive [and] they would say, ‘You know what you can do,' [but] deep inside I felt the doubts and everything. [They were just saying what they felt they should be saying]. I just felt like they're full of it…but that just gave me more motivation. I'm going to prove them wrong, and to this date, I have."

  • "My parents…grew up in a time when blind people weren't expected to do much and their expectations were consistent with the society that [they] mirrored. When I was young, I went to public school when my parents were alive. When they died, and we were sent to my grandparents, they sent me away to the school for blind and they didn't believe me when I told them that I could go to public school. Now, in retrospect, there may have been some advantages to my going to the School for the Blind -- my getting away from that environment.…I said, ‘Grandmother, one day I'll grow up and become successful and affluent,' and she said, ‘No, you just need to work on maybe becoming a country preacher or maybe doing some sort of production.' So it was hard emotionally to understand that the expectation was low. When we lived on a farm, my sister would be required to get up with the break of dawn and join them in the field and I can't tell you how I yearned to go out and do it too, not because I thought it would be especially pleasurable but because everyone else was doing it and it created quite a dynamic between my sibling and I. She thought that I was lucky and I thought that I was very unlucky. And I couldn't convey to someone who was two years my junior that I didn't feel believed in."

  • "It seemed to me that just by getting a job, by getting off of welfare, by moving forward I was defying the odds, defying what was expected of me."

  • "I always had the attitude, don't tell me I can't do it, I'll prove you wrong."

  • "Adversity has made me strong."

Several participants said that non-limiting self-perceptions had been important elements in their success:

  • "I still don't consider myself disabled, I just do it differently."

  • "I never felt different, I just sit down [instead of standing]."