For as long as she can remember, Jennifer Evans of Las Cruces, N.M., has dreamed of running political campaigns. Within minutes of meeting her, you can see that she is well-suited for such a role, with an engaging personality, an inquisitive mind, a keen interest in current events and no shortage of opinions.
Just one thing: Evans uses a wheelchair, having been born with cerebral palsy. Like many disabled Americans, it is this factor that has stood in her way — although little else has.
“Employment has been very difficult for me, much more difficult than anything I anticipated and was prepared for,” Evans said.
She’s not alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 20% of disabled Americans are employed, compared to more than 66% of the non-disabled population. The reasons for this gap are varied and many, including a lack of education or training, lack of transportation, the need for special accommodations in the workplace and the inability to complete essential job functions due to a disability.
In Evans’ case, her cerebral palsy has left both of her legs and one of her arms paralyzed, requiring her to use a motorized wheelchair for mobility and find workarounds to complete essential tasks of daily living. Like many disabled individuals, Evans hadn’t thought much about these limitations — until she entered the workforce.
“My plan and God’s plan are different plans.”
“Realizing I’m not the same as everyone else is the hard part,” she said. “I did high school like everyone else, easier than everyone else. I did college in four years exactly the way you’re supposed to. …There was nothing in my life up to that point that prepared me for not being able to do something.”
After graduating from Baylor University in 2002, Evans moved to San Antonio, a city she loves, along with a good friend. She began applying for jobs in a variety of areas, from administrative support to call centers. At one point, Evans estimates, she had 30 versions of her résumé.
“I had this vision I was going to go to this bigger city away from my family, and I don’t think that’s an outrageous goal,” Evans said. “And I had that life for a while. But when you don’t have a job, you get in a bind, so I came home (to New Mexico) where my family is, where I would at least have the support.
“The few jobs I’ve had have been in the nonprofit sector,” Evans said. But even then, she struggled. One of her favorite jobs was as a program coordinator for a supplemental education coordinator.
“Realizing I’m not the same as everyone else is the hard part.”
“I loved that job, but the problem was that it was 13 different schools and I don’t drive,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared for how many obstacles there were and how hard it was going to be.”
That she was unprepared for the working world meant that Evans didn’t reach out for help when she needed it. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for their disabled employees. Accommodations can range from providing special equipment, modifying scheduled work hours or providing an aid or service that increases access.
“I feel like I wasn’t told there was a problem in enough time to make an adaption,” she said. “Now if I were to get a job, I would say, ‘Yes, I can do this, but it takes me longer.’ I’m more aware of my own limitations.”
Now, back home in New Mexico, Evans lives on her own and relies on government disability benefits. It’s enough money to get by, but it’s not her preference.
“If I could get a job and pay for myself and be independent, I would get rid of it in a nanosecond,” she said. To that end, Evans has started her own business selling Mary Kay cosmetics. It’s an opportunity that allows her to work from home and set her own schedule, sidestepping obstacles she faced in past jobs.
Despite all of the challenges she’s faced, the New Mexico native remains optimistic.
“My plan and God’s plan are different plans,” she said. “I’m always looking for the surprise, for the turnaround moment.”
This story was made possible by gifts to the Mark Wingfield Fund for Interpretive Journalism.