Jaggar DeMarco: As a student with a disability, coping with the pressure to intern

Nine out of every 10 GW students intern. But I’m worried that I’ll be the one who doesn’t.

As a student at GW – or at any school, for that matter – we’re constantly told that one of the best ways to make the most out of the college experience is to intern. We’re reminded that internships are the best path to landing a job after graduation.

But as a student with a physical disability, this reality has been especially burdensome.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Jaggar DeMarco

For someone in a wheelchair, getting an internship is not as simple as signing up for a campus internship fair and picking up the business cards of companies that are hiring. I have to be far more practical, diligently examining the internship requirements to make sure I’m capable of fulfilling them. Let’s be honest: Employers won’t get much out of having me – a person with limited dexterity – as their coffee bitch. And neither will I.

There’s no hiding my disability. And I’m aware of the fact that it could put me at a competitive disadvantage. Just because employers are legally prohibited from discriminating against me because of my disability doesn’t mean it never happens. We all know workplace discrimination exists on the basis of sex or race, and the truth is, it exists on the basis of ability as well.

I can only speak to my own experience as a student with a physical disability. But I know that students with a variety of other disabilities also face challenges. For example, students with hearing or sight impairments may not be able to successfully conduct their job responsibilities without tools like sign language interpreters or braille.

The good news is, there is hope for students looking to find internships in this cutthroat job market through the Workplace Recruitment Program. Students with disabilities fill out an application, participate in a telephone interview, and a profile is created and sent to all federal agencies looking to hire interns or full-time employees. Each person’s name stays in the database for one year, then interested participants are asked to reapply.

The great part about this program is it gives students individual profiles, so agencies can find interns who have an interest in the work they do and are capable of fulfilling the internship’s tasks.

Both parties – the employer and the student intern – get the most out of this system. The employer boasts added diversity in the workplace, and the student gains meaningful work experience at a place where they can actually contribute.

For the first time this year, I’ve enrolled in the program. But the problem is, there isn’t a similar program for nongovernmental internships. Professionally, I’m not interested in working for the government. But as a political communication major, I would likely get some useful work experience at a federal agency.

That said, for students looking for futures in the engineering or medical fields, for example, how many federal government jobs are going to be useful to them? These students deserve accessible internship options, too.

Major challenges are overlooked
There are a ton of benefits to internship opportunities. But in having this conversation, we can’t ignore the difficulties that students with disabilities experience when adding an internship to their workload.

Internships are a time commitment that can limit any students’ ability to take care of themselves. This burden is especially heavy for people with disabilities such as myself who have to place more of an emphasis on personal health.

Making sure that my health needs are met can sometimes be time consuming – and when they aren’t met, I can potentially suffer the consequences in big ways. For example, if I pull multiple all-nighters before an exam or a big paper, the repercussions of getting a cold are greater for me than the average student: I’m often bed-ridden at best and hospitalized at worst.

But this is not just about me. People with dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder might take longer to complete homework assignments than people who don’t have difficulty reading or focusing. While internships are seemingly necessary to be competitive upon graduation, it might be too great a strain for students who have other worries.

Despite these barriers, students with disabilities should strive to take internships if they think it is feasible in addition to their academic and personal obligations. And the responsibility falls on employers to provide inclusive internship programs that are at least somewhat tailored to the needs of people with disabilities.

It’s easy to stretch yourself too thin. That’s why I was concerned – but not surprised – to hear about a graduate student with a physical health issue who was unable to hold down a job and take courses at the same time, prompting her turn to crowdfunding to pay back a debt to GW.

The problem here is not students with disabilities: It’s the system that prevents them from effectively contributing as much as they could. Just because people with disabilities have a longer-than-average list of challenges to overcome does not mean they should be prohibited from pursuing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Jaggar DeMarco, a junior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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