3 Career Lessons I Wish I Had Known Sooner As a Visually Impaired Woman
By: Rev. Rebecca L. Holland, B.S. English Ed. & M.Div.
(Originally published in the March edition of CAPTIVATING! Magazine)
Several weeks ago, I was sitting in my office when I received an e-mail. It read simply:
“I would like to ask you a personal question- I’ve read your blog at BeckieWrites.com and I know from your writing that you are have vision problems just like me. I just wanted to write to you and ask: What is it like to have a full time job? I’ve been searching for one and I’m worried that I will never find one. How did you do it? How did you make it?”
I was so stunned by that message that I had to read it three times before I finally managed to process it.
That letter was an epiphany for me. After reading it, I realized that the person who had written to me was correct. I had “made it,” in the truest sense of the word. I was working at a job that I absolutely loved and pursuing my passions. I woke up every day with a sense of purpose and excited to go to work. In fact, I’m so happy with my job that it often doesn’t feel like work at all.
In a country where, according to the Bureau of U.S. Labor and Statistics, 80% of people with disabilities are unemployed I know that I am incredibly blessed to have this position.
It has been a long and difficult journey. Along the way, I’ve learned many lessons. In honor of the one year anniversary of my ordination in the United Methodist Church, here are the three lessons I wish that I had learned earlier in my career. Whether you work in the church or the secular world, if you are a woman with a disability, hopefully you will find these lessons helpful.
Lesson #1: I’m sorry- but you will be judged more harshly than your able-bodied male colleagues.
People will judge you based on your appearance. I’m sorry. It’s not right and it’s not fair, but here is the cold hard truth I wish someone would have told me years ago: You will have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously as your able-bodied colleagues. If you also happen to not be white, you will face even harsher judgement.
As a female pastor, I work in a profession that is largely dominated by men. Some estimates show that only 12% of clergy are women. Although women have made great strides in today’s world, we still have a long way to go in order to achieve full equality. Women still earn less than men and we are still face harsher scrutiny than our male colleagues.
It’s a simple fact that when a person looks at me, if I’m using my white cane, the first thing that they will notice is my disability. If I want them to see a strong, intelligent, capable, and professional woman, I must make a concerted effort to present like one.
That is why I always make an effort to try to dress professionally. What the sighted world defines as “professional,” can be confusing, so I encourage you to do your research.
For me, I know that I feel most confident and professional when I am wearing:
-A pencil skirt
-A tailored blazer
-A small amount of makeup
I wish I could go back and tell my past self to start dressing like a professional adult as soon as I started my fist internship. I’ve learned the hard way that in order to change the way the world views disability, perception is half of the battle.
Lesson #2: It’s not right, but nobody cares how you feel. They care what you accomplish.
First, I would like to say that I care how you feel. If you have a prayer concern or would just like to chat, feel free to send me a message. Your pastor should care how you feel. Your friends should care how you feel. But in the workplace, or in the classroom if you’re still in school, it is results that matter. Hopefully, this will change in the future, and we will learn to respect people as entire beings; however, in the mean time, this was a challenging lesson for me to learn.
When I was in high school, I missed 27 days my senior year because I had two emergency eye surgeries. The recovery time was long and incredibly painful. In my thirty years on this earth, the feeling of stitches in my eye ball is the most painful thing I had ever experienced.
When I finally returned to school, I asked one of my teachers for an extension on one of the assignments. I was in Advanced Placement classes and I had missed so much work that I felt as if I was drowning. I did my best to explain to my teacher that I was till in a great deal of pain and that I was overloaded with coursework.
I was mortified when my teacher looked at me and said bluntly, “Fine. I will give you more time- but I don’t think you really need it. You should be recovered by now. It’s been over a month. You’re just lazy.”
I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t lazy- I was in excruciating pain.
His response was simply, “Make sure the assignment is completed by next week.”
That was a hard lesson for me, but I’m glad it came relatively early in my life. I’m happy to report that I did complete the assignment in time. Not only that, but I managed to graduate fifth in my class out of 144 students.
My advice to you is this: Over prepare for every meeting, over study for every exam, and always give 110%. Then, give another 25% just for good measure.
Members of the able bodied world may not realize that they are judging you- but they are. For example, One of my least favorite compliments is, “You preach so well- for a blind person.”
We all make snap judgments about people, whether or not we realize it. Make sure that you are able to overcome any of your colleagues or superiors inherent biases by working harder than everyone else at the table.
It’s not right – but as a person with a disability, you will have to be extraordinary to simply be perceived by the able-bodied world as ordinary. In order to stand out, you will need to make certain that your performance is truly remarkable.
Lesson #3: You can’t do it alone. Behind every successful person is an entire village of supportive people.
When I was only a year into my current position, I once more needed another eye surgery. I refused to make the same mistake I had in the past.
About a week before my scheduled surgery, I had the opportunity to share lunch with a friend who is also a colleague of mine. She asked me how much time I planned to take off from work in order to recover.
“I’m not taking any time off,” I told her earnestly, “I don’t need eyes to preach.” Then, I confessed to her that I especially wanted to prove that I could perform my job without eyesight because there is a chance that I may become completely blind in my future. I reminded her that the church does not need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I confided that one of my deepest darkest fears was that I would be terminated if I lost my eyesight entirely.
“But you won’t you be in pain after the surgery?” she asked.
I always try to be honest, especially because I’m pastor, so I answered that I would be in a great deal of pain for at least two weeks.
At last, she responded, “You need to take some time off. I won’t tell you how much time- but it’s clearly necessary.”
Before I could object, she continued, “Don’t worry. Someone will cover for you. We will find someone to lead worship. Even God rested on the seventh day.”
I couldn’t argue with that logic. I will also admit that I was incredibly grateful.
I cannot begin to list the number of people who helped me get to where I am today. I’m grateful to my mother, who fought tirelessly for me to have the accommodations that I needed so that I could get the same education as my sighted peers. I am so thankful for my family, who supported me through college and graduate school. I also wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for generous mentors who supported me, colleagues who vouched for me, and true friends who stood beside me. I am also deeply grateful for the love and support of my church family, who accepted me exactly the way I am.
I did take the time off I needed after my surgery. Thanks to the love and support of all the amazing people in my life, I was able to be back in the pulpit as soon as I was fully recovered.
Use Your Voice to Lift Up Others
In 2018, the same year that 80% of people in my country with disabilities were unemployed, I was ordained by the United Methodist Church. It was the happiest day of my life.
As of 2018, the church has covenanted with me to provide me with a job for the rest of my life. I have promised to always serve the church and love God. In return, the church has promised to always provide me with a congregation to serve and love.
I no longer need to fear that I will be terminated due to my poor vision, but I know many people who continue to struggle to find gainful employment. That is why I am writing this article. My goal is to use my voice to help others.
If you find anything in this article useful, then I hope that you will feel free to apply it to your own journey; however, please remember that everyone’s journey is unique. Only you can know what decisions make the most sense for you.
Whatever life choices you make and whatever career opportunities come your way, please know that your value is not determined by whether or not you have a job. Perhaps you will decide that employment doesn’t make sense for you at this point in your life for any number of reasons.
Whatever you decide, I hope that you will chase your dreams, put your best foot forward, and live your life to the fullest.
Never be ashamed of your disability.
Don’t be embarrassed when they look at us because we are different.
It makes sense that they stare. They stare because blind is beautiful.
They stare because We Are CAPTIVATING!
About the Author
About the Author: Rev. Rebecca L. Holland (B.S. English Ed & M.Div.) is the pastor at Christ Community United Methodist Church in Altoona, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about making both the church and the world more accessible for people with disabilities. She also serves as the chair of the Disability Ministry Task Force of the Susquehanna Conference.
Her chapbook, Through My Good Eye: A Memoir in Verse is available in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon. Rebecca blogs about faith, books, and disability awareness on her blog at BeckieWrites.com . Find her on Twitter and Instagram @BeckieWrites
Making My Wedding Accessible by Martha Harris
Faith and Sight loss (Personal Testimony) by Amanda Gene Nelson