Experience with a disability is sometimes the best experience

Talking about real-life, hands-on experience. I ran across a job listing on Indeed.com that called for someone who has “Lived experience with mental health issues and treatment.” An organization in eastern Massachusetts says this experience is strongly preferred. For the first time, I am impressed with an organization’s willingness to openly hire a person with a disability—in fact, require it.


I’m not ignorant to the fact that organizations employ people with disabilities; I just haven’t seen a job ad that highly suggests that candidates must have a disability.

Before I became a workshop facilitator at an urban career center, I was its Disability Program Coordinator where I helped people with disabilities re-enter the labor market. So I’m familiar with the struggles this population faces in getting past the stereotypes of being disabled, physically, mentally, or both.

Never did I see an organization actively seek people with mental illnesses. Hell, it was hard identifying those organizations who would entertain the idea. This is the main reason why I found job development so frustrating; too hard getting past the gatekeepers who showed their disapproval like a billboard when you asked if they needed someone with qualifications…who happened to have a disability.

It is a known fact that many substance abuse counselors are in recovery themselves. This gives them a better idea of what people with substance abuse issues are enduring and allows them to speak about recovery more accurately.

Sometimes the best cops are the ones who grew up “on the streets,” because they know the environment and behavior of the criminals they’re trying to apprehend. Real-life experience is the best teacher in my mind.

So I was encouraged to see this ad that calls for a person with real-life experience to assist a defined population. Doesn’t it make sense that the people who understand others with disabilities, substance abuse, and criminal backgrounds help or otherwise interact with them?

More to the point, this organization opens up opportunities for people who may be victimized by discrimination because of their disability. Instead they welcome candidates to share their knowledge and expertise with the less fortunate.

I recall one assistant director of a Department of Mental Health clubhouse proudly exclaim that he suffered from bi-polar disorder. He happened to be a great advocate of people with mental illness. Incidentally, he became a director of another DMH clubhouse.

Should employers who serves those with mental illness be the only ones to hire people with this type of real-life experience? Hell no. A brilliant psychologist who worked for the Department of Mental Health told me something I’ll never forget, which was that the best medicine for someone suffering from mental illness is work.

Photo: Flickr, Ryan Baker

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