Why Billy Got the Job

Billy Wright says, "It is kind of hard sometimes to get off your butt and want to go to work when you know you're going to be looked at differently."
Reprinted from PN October 2001

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Here's the tale of one man's quest for work.

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"Motivational" is an adjective many peopleespecially those who have spinal-cord injuries (SCIs)use to describe Billy W. Wright. They see him as a role model and mentor. Yet before he could become motivational to other people, he had to motivate himself.

After serving his country for four years in the United States Marines Corps, Wright, a Washington, D.C., native, was planning to go back to college and possibly return to the Marines as an officer or perhaps become involved in police work.

But in 1986, at age 23, Wright was involved in an automobile accident that left him paralyzedand, at first, devastated.

Wright underwent physical and emotional rehabilitation for three years (splitting the time as an in- and outpatient at National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C.). He also had the opportunity to share his feelings with fellow patients.

"Just listening to other patients and what they were going through helped me deal with my own pain," Wright says.

Upon leaving the hospital Wright moved in with his parents for the first time in six years.

"I spent the first three days scared to death," he says. "I just lay in my bed and stared at the ceiling. I could hear my parents whispering to each other, 'Can't you get him out of bed?' They had deep concerns about me."

So what made Wright decide to get out of bed? To not fall into a lifestyle that would make him become comfortable staying home all day and watching television?

"It was just a strong desire not to give up on life," he says. "I didn't want to look back 20 years from now and say I didn't do anything with my life."

In 1989, Wright began looking for low-end clerical jobs, because "the only work experience I had was combat training." Eventually, he got a part-time job through an acquaintance whose parents owned an electrical contracting company. Wright performed minor clerical functions four hours a day, three times a week. The job not only gave him nine months of experience working in an office, but it also taught him he was physically capable of pursuing full-time employment. The job search took more than six months.

"I went to a lot of job fairs and passed out [many] resumes," he recalls, "and sometimes I went to interviews in parking lots because the buildings weren't accessible. But they interviewed me anyway, I guess to avoid lawsuits. It was difficult. I felt like a zero. I wasn't in life; I wasn't in the mainstream."

But Wright never gave up. On the morning he planned to attend another job fair, the weather was miserable.

"There was a huge thunderstorm, and I woke up and thought, Oh, God, I don?t want to go out. I started not to go to that job fair, but I did go. And I got soaking wet getting over there. I mean even my resumes were drenched! But this lady, the head of the National Research Laboratory [NRL], saw me and said, 'Let me have your resume.' I guess she saw in my eyes that I was hungry. So she gave me a call. They had an opening for a data-entry transcriber, not to exceed 90 days, and boomshe offered me the position. When I got there, I did a good job, and they extended me."

Wright stresses that if he had not had total commitment to getting a job, he would have stayed in bed that day. "And I would have missed that first opportunity," he says.

In 1997, when Wright heard about an opening for a job-placement specialist at Mainstream, Inc., a nonprofit organization serving people with disabilities, he applied and was hired. He went on to work as a senior employment specialist with the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Institute before taking on a new assignment late last year with a new program: the Employer Assistance Referral Network (EARN). Funded through the Office of Disability Employment Policy (formerly the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities), EARN connects employers who are seeking qualified applicants with disabilities with disability-service providers in their communities. As the program's technical assistance manager, Wright oversees the day-to-day communication operation with employers.

Does Wright believe employer discrimination is one of the major barriers job seekers with disabilities face?

"I'm not necessarily going to agree with that to a certain degree. A lot of people make that excuse: We're discriminated against, we weren't treated fairly, or we weren't selected because we're disabled," he says. "I think a lot of them are just not committed to wanting to accomplish getting a job. I believe if you show commitment to something, sooner or later you'll get your opportunity to prove yourself.

"[Many] people with disabilities don't have a game plan. They tend to [think] a job's going to fall into their laps. It's not a realistic approach. If you don't lay out exactly how you're going to do this thing, you're not going to accomplish it.

"You do need support. You need training on how to deal with the rejection you get when you don't get the job. You have to be able to build up tolerance to handle it when the door slams in your face."

On the former point, Wright shared his "personal action plan" with participants in the Avenues Unlimited "Independent Job Seeking Skills Program" training provided to job seekers with SCI/D last summer through a grant from the Paralyzed Veterans of America's (PVA's) Education and Training Foundation:

1) Contact job developers/job placement specialists
2) Write/update your resume
3) Practice interviewing skills
4) Network
5) Contact and apply for nine jobs per weekuse the Internet and classified ads; check in with human resources/personnel departments
6) Keep detailed records of your job search
7) Check in with human resources/personnel departments and follow up on applications

"If you stick with this plan, I can almost guarantee you will get a job. Someone will hire you," Wright told the trainees.

As far as dealing with rejection and developing the motivation to keep going, "you have to start from within," he said. "You have to be able to admit to yourself the things you fear, that you never want to say."

Wright observed that while job-placement agencies can teach people how to go about looking for a job, they can?t teach self-esteem. So if self-esteem is essential to becoming motivated to do a job search, is there a way to teach it to job seekers with disabilities?

"There is a method," Wright said. "Group discussion is good. I've talked with a lot of disabled friends and gotten their points of view."

And what about role models and mentors? "You have to talk to other disabled people," he says, "the ones who have been successful, to see what they did."

And perhaps that is why Billy Wright now spends as much time as possible telling job seekers with disabilities what he didthrough training, support groups, and one-on-one get-togethers.

Fritz Rumpel is executive director of Avenues Unlimited, Inc., a private, nonprofit organization that trains youths and adults with disabilities in the skills of job seeking and self-advocacy. Contact: Avenues Unlimited, Inc., 8547 Bradford Road, Silver Springs, MD 20901. (301) 585-2608 /


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