ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Being a "Special Needs" Employee

Jack Bragen
Saturday July 12, 2014 - 09:01:00 AM

Our society keeps jobs and wealth away from those who can not keep their pace up with the rest. However, in order for companies to maximize profits it isn't actually necessary to exclude people with disabilities. Many of us have a great deal of potential that is being wasted. The work ethic as it currently exists excludes people who may have a few problems or a few differences. And it doesn't have to be this way.  

When I did volunteer work performing office duties, I didn't think it would be a big deal to call in sick. However, after calling in sick once, these people no longer had work for me. Although my absence was on the second day of work, these employers could have given me the benefit of the doubt, and could have given me another chance.  

When a friend worked as a volunteer, she was judged negatively by a supervisor who apparently did not understand her disability. People with mental illness need more sick days than other people. Forgiving this characteristic goes against modern day employment practices. However those employment practices ought to change, and the work world ought not be so harsh.  

The same person (mentioned above) got another volunteer job in which supervisory staff did not care about attendance, and this was helpful.  

Persons with disabilities often have numerous and great talents, and yet, often, we can't get hired except at the most awful of jobs. When someone has a mental illness, in order to get hired for any kind of decent job, we must generally conceal the fact of our illness. This is much harder to do now than it was before the advent of the internet.  

When mentally ill people are hired for something, they may find that conditions in the work environment are too difficult. However, if the person with mental illness is accommodated with special adjustments to their work situation, it can also be dismaying, since, ideally, we would like to be treated the same as any other employee.  

Special situations, especially those in which expectations are less, can sometimes be a source of humiliation. Being treated as "the mentally ill employee" can be quite a blow to self esteem, and this is the opposite of what we wanted when seeking employment.  

Thus, it might seem as though I am asking for an impossibility. On the one hand I am saying that the work environment should be made less harsh, and on the other hand, I am saying we would like to be treated the same. An answer to this dichotomy might require a lot of thought.  

This is where we invoke the idea of reasonable accommodation. Adjustments for disabled people should be such that the mentally ill person is still competitive and is still doing essentially the same job as others.  

For example, employers might consider not firing a mentally ill person after a couple of extra sick days. Attempts could be made to make the person feel welcome. Such adjustments might also include making the work environment seem less threatening, or might include giving extra break time to that individual. 

Upon making adjustments for a person with mental illness, the employer could still maintain the expectation that the work is usable for their company. The disabled employee should still be expected to produce something.  

In some jobs that I held in the past, I negotiated directly with the employer to obtain reasonable accommodation, and did not use the mental health treatment system to do the negotiation. This was empowering.  

Employers were willing to negotiate special terms with me because they liked the work and they liked my attitude. I had the tendency to do well in small "mama papa" companies wherein I worked directly for the business owner, and I have done less well in larger companies.  

A couple of these jobs were in the field of electronic repair. Other jobs included delivery driving and stocking shelves at a retail store.  

A couple of times I did try to use the MH treatment system to negotiate, and in these jobs, I was treated as an idiot, or in some cases not hired in the first place.  

When mental health professionals stepped in and tried to create special employment situations, it became quite humiliating. The presumption of idiocy is quite apparent, and I have never been able to accept that.  

Work performed from home by telecommute is often ideal for many people with a disability. Data entry or some type of transcription are examples of entry level positions that someone could perform in their home.  

In my past, one of the solutions I arrived at for the employment quandary was to become self-employed. If a disabled person is the head of a company, even a company with no employees, it still essentially guarantees not being fired or discriminated against. Most of my businesses weren't profitable, but the same can be said for small business in general—most fail within their first two years.  

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