This month we are interviewing individuals with disabilities to celebrate the 70th National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). NDEAM is a time to celebrate the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities.
Nik Petersson is a founder and Senior Accessibility Consultant at Miles Access Skills Training, LLC.
Who was on the team that supported you to meet your employment goals? How did they support you?
In starting my own business, my partner and I really tried to reach out and collaborate with community partners who were already successful in their own business. Linda Hill, of Linda HIll & Associates, is a private vocational rehabilitation counselor who was always willing to share her experiences. Tara Asai of Asai & Associates and Steve Gordon of the Department of Veteran Affairs referred us to one of our first clients that really cemented for us that this is the work we should be doing. Sharon Elder of Hull Retreat Center for the Blind was also supportive. We utilized classes and mentorship from the business volunteers at SCORE, and my partner also took business classes at Hadley School for the Blind. Some of our greatest supporters were members of the self advocacy groups in the blind community, who are instrumental in keeping us on track as to what they want and need most from our company. The Oregon Commission for the Blind contributed support in terms of some of the main start-up costs. In fact, OCB director Dacia Johnson was really the inspiration and motivator for us to venture into our own business.
What was the biggest challenge to start working?
I have consistently had jobs since my early 20s. I have worked at mostly big corporations like IBM and Royal Bank of Canada. But I have faced lengthy times of unemployment as well. As a blind person, it is frustrating to know you are a professional and have skills to do a great job but to then be asked questions like, “How will you find the bathroom?” or to go through great phone interviews and then be cast aside once they realize you are blind. Job hunting is tough for everyone out there, but it is miserable when you are disabled. We have ups and downs as entrepreneurs, but really, we are in charge of our employment and we know what we can do. We don’t have to deal with a stranger wondering whether we can get ourselves to the bathroom.
What do you like best about working?
I like helping people solve their problems and meet their goals and dreams. I like helping people realize that they can have much higher expectations for themselves than they originally thought. As a business owner, I like making new connections and partnerships. I like hustling for my own business and being directly accountable to my clients rather than to a boss. Of course, I like being able to pay my bills and feed my family, too.
What do you want people to know about employing people with disabilities?
People with disabilities really are a largely untapped source of wonderful talent, work-ethic, and loyalty. In my work with employers, I notice that they have a lot of concerns that are based on myth, like my example above of concern over whether a blind person will need help in the bathroom (of course not!). Its understandable that many people are not that knowledgeable about what people with disabilities can do, but I would hope they would keep an open mind and educate themselves, instead of making assumptions. Also, my company works with employers to develop reasonable accommodations, and many of these accommodations take just a few days or weeks to set up and are not all that costly. With a small investment up front, an employer can be repaid many times over in the form of a highly valued employee. Also, setting up accommodations for the first employee often means that other people with disabilities who are considered for employment will already have many accommodations already in place. Disabled employees are a great investment.