For many Americans, going to college and starting a career is seen as an expected and even necessary path we take as adults. But for the more than 40 million Americans living with a disability, that path is fraught with obstacles, caused not only by physical limitations, but also by social limitations.
When Kevin Fritz turned 18, he realized he wanted a career and independence, despite the countless obstacles in his way. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, which increasingly weakens the muscles, doctors did not expect Fritz to live more than two years.
“I have a physical disability and only have the use of one of my fingers,” says Fritz, now 33. “A lot of people with my disease end up living at home and not having a job. I did everything to get out of this mould.
It involved more than pursuing a career he was passionate about, as his disability limited what was available to him. Below Medicaid buyout laws, each state imposes varying income limits on its population, often ranging from $30,000 to $40,000. If a person with a disability works and earns above this income limit, they no longer have access to home and community carers and affordable state-provided services.
For Fritz, this meant that pursuing a career would be a gamble: he could either find a job that supported his 24/7 care costs (which could be as high as $15,000 a month), pursue a career less well paid or risk his physical well-being. -be if he couldn’t afford the proper care on his own.
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However, his bet pays off. For the past 16 years, Fritz not only completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but went on to study law at Washington University in St. Louis. He is now a corporate defense attorney and works as a labor attorney for human resource management software company Gusto. EBN spoke with Fritz to better understand his journey and what it takes for people with disabilities to further their lives and careers.
Looking back, what was your college experience like?
College was a transition because I had nurses most of my life who were in their mid-40s. They took care of me, got me ready for school, and helped me get ready for bed. I went from that to 18 with another 18 year old doing that job. It was a very big change. I have a physical disability that requires assistance with all physical activities. If I have to go to the bathroom, if I have to take a shower or do something intimate with my body, I need help. So being cared for by people my age was a big transition.
When I was 21, I decided to get an off-campus apartment and not live in the disabled dorms anymore. I decided this wasn’t real life. I offered to pay the dormitory assistants more money so they could work for me, and that was my first foray into labor law.
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I had also worked for President Obama a summer before he was president and this was my first encounter with people with disabilities who were doing important things. Before college, I had never seen a person with a disability wearing jeans or clothing purchased from stores like Abercrombie and Fitch. When I worked for Obama, I saw people with disabilities grow up, have jobs, families, and relationships. We take it for granted today that we at least see people with disabilities on television — that was not the case in 2006. Many people with my condition end up falling into this system. I didn’t want that for me.
What considerations did you have to take into account as you pursued your career with the system currently in place for people with disabilities?
If you earn more than $30,000 or $40,000, the government may no longer grant you benefits. And someone like me needs help around the clock. So how am I going to afford 24/7 care on a salary under $200,000? This system has forgotten this select group of people who are very disabled, but who can also contribute to society. Personally, I had to decide early on that I needed a career where I could independently pay for caregiving. On my first day in law school, I told my professor that I needed to earn a lot of money. She said you should be an employment lawyer, and I never looked back.
What difficulties did you encounter when entering the job market?
Daily logistics can be kryptonite for someone like me. The way I navigate is by training and devoting the energy to solving these issues from the start. When I started working, I often had to go to court. On the weekends, while my colleagues were practicing their arguments, I would bring myself and my caregiver to the courthouse and figure out how to navigate. How are we gonna get me through the front door? How are we going to get to the mic? It’s my whole life. I never had time to worry about the substance of what I was up against, I just had to know.
During the interviews during my job search, I already knew that they were going to find out about my disability. The law may not allow them to ask questions about it, but they want to know. So I volunteered. Instead of them not knowing how I type, I explained that I was using dictation software. I could make a joke out of it, because it’s an uncomfortable situation. I sponsor many young people [with disabilities] who are considering going to college and entering the workforce, and I tell them that they need to take control of their narrative.
What was your work experience like over the past 10 years?
When I worked for a law firm, I was a defense lawyer for employers. I lost friends and people with disabilities because I defended “the man” or the “bad guy”. But I find there’s a lot of value in being at the table with employers, rather than fighting against employers. You can make a change when you can say, “You’re paying me a lot of money to represent you. We need to change your policies. Your policies put you in danger. I’ve worked with many companies and never felt like they didn’t want to do the right thing. They just don’t know how. What I’ve done with my career is focused on how we can fix employee issues and stop them from continuing to happen.
What advice do you have for managers who want to create an inclusive workplace and culture for talent with disabilities?
Remember to meet people where they are. There are people who can do things without physical ability. There are people with non-visible or non-physical disabilities who work in ways that may be different from the way you work. A good manager does not compare the “norm” to everyone. A good manager realizes that there is more than one way to solve a problem.
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One of the challenges in the workplace is the notion that if you can’t show up every day and be 100%, you’re not good enough. But we are people. People make mistakes. People are not perfect. There must be opportunity and availability to succeed. I’ve seen legitimate dismissals of people with disabilities, and what reassures me is that managers have created opportunities and space for everyone to thrive. My goal for my clients is to make sure there are plenty of opportunities for everyone to show up.
What advice do you wish someone had told you before entering the world of higher education and work?
Don’t worry about the “noes”. You will hear a lot of “no”. For a while, I would devote so much energy to a particular effort. When he fell, I felt like I had failed and wasted a lot of time. My life expectancy was two years – I always lived with a sense of urgency and always felt like time was slipping from my fingers. But I had to approach this from a standpoint if it’s meant to be for both parties then it’s meant to be. I had to make peace with the fact that I would get more ‘no’s than ‘yes’. And if I hadn’t done all these interviews, I wouldn’t have had my confidence. When the right job came along, it was an easy choice for them and an easy choice for me.