The Myth of Sisyphus with Disability: Part Two

Artwork of a person in a wheelchair at the bottom of a rocky hill CREDIT: COURTESY OF ADAM KEARNEY
"In the time between leaving that job and where I am now, a country album's worth of life events have transpired."

This article is Part Two in a series of excerpts from Fanshawe grad Adam Kearney’s essay, The Myth of Sisyphus with Disability.

There were a lot of great things to learn about traditional printing and prepress work. The down side to this kind of design work can be that it is very limiting in the variety of styles of work that you eventually get to put in your portfolio. While my friends were slowly working their way up the ladder from copy shops to agencies. I was happily plugging away at shop life becoming a huge print nerd. To this day I can talk your ear off about halftones and separations.

From time to time I would think about moving on from the shop, that’s when someone (usually my parents) would chime in with, “you should consider yourself lucky to have a steady job.” Though it was true, I came to understand that this phrase is one of the greatest forms of gaslighting people with disability face. When we voice our concerns they are more likely to be dismissed as insignificant whining than legitimate insights. Oftentimes, we are mistreated or discriminated against and told to be thankful we are even being acknowledged. We know that the only other option is to be dependent on a government who is just as interested in providing us with a “humane death.” This is why if you ever see a billboard encouraging employment focused disability inclusion, the number one talking point is often how “loyal and hardworking” people with disability are. Needless to say, I stayed too long working at this print shop. When it was time to move on, I learned just how badly I had painted myself into a corner.

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Not only did I struggle to pull together a strong enough portfolio to start applying around town, I discovered an even larger barrier ahead of me. Most agencies and marketing firms are in converted heritage houses or second floor loft spaces with gorgeous exposed brick walls. Even the Creative Professional’s networking events were held in inaccessible venues. I was left at the bottom of the stairs while my peers won door prizes and made valuable business connections leading to those sought after second story jobs.

After spending almost a year on the job hunt, a good friend of mine landed me a job at the company he was working for. They didn’t even look at my portfolio before offering me the job. It was an on the rise marketing/printing company that promised a lot of opportunity. Though I got to build on my portfolio and skills while working there, I also witnessed a toxic work environment, and learned a lot about what ableism looks like in a professional setting. Things such as being left out of meetings, spoken down to, treated as the scapegoat on failed projects, patted on the head and outright called names by the owner of the company. Unfortunately, I was stuck there because, at the time, my partner and I were trying to start a family and I had already once seen how hard it was finding new employment. The resounding chorus of gaslighting, “you should be grateful you even have a job,” was a deafening constant. After four years of working there, I was let go without cause. It was a blessing and a curse — it was also the beginning of a very challenging time of my life.

In the time between leaving that job and where I am now, a country album’s worth of life events have transpired. I lost a prematurely born son, my long-term relationship blew up, I went back to college for web design, barely finishing because my bad relationship with alcohol turned into a full-blown addiction. Then, a global pandemic magically manifested. It’s a lot, I know, and it’s not really what I am trying to talk about here. After all, I am saving those stories for that country album. Or maybe more essays like this — the future is unwritten. But the real point I am trying to make is that I’ve been sober for over two years now. This acted as a much-needed catalyst to begin putting a lot of work into who I am as a person with disability, which truly has been a challenging and enlightening journey.

When I went back to college to expand on my web design and development skills, an opportunity to apply for an internship at a local tech company affiliated with the school came up. My class toured their office — an accessible and modern workspace with, surprisingly, a lot of familiar faces. The company had even just posted on their blog about the importance of hiring people with disability to encourage the growth of a more inclusive and stronger community. With my previous work experience, I felt certain I was an ideal candidate for the internship. However, the day after the post, I found out I didn’t get the position. This wouldn’t be the only time something like this would happen in my continued search for employment.

Recently, a self-proclaimed “social justice minded” marketing company posted a graphic designer job listing on their social media account. Their application even had an amazing question asking what cause are you a social justice warrior for. Two times the job was posted and twice I didn’t get the job. I tried not to take it to heart and told myself it’s likely because of my portfolio not being strong enough. Though the sting would come when one of the owners of the company (who I know through a mutual friend) reached out and asked if I would be the guest speaker for their social justice themed book club. They had picked Disability Visibility by Alice Wong (a great read, by the way) and wanted to know if I would like to come and share my life experience and maybe participate in a Q&A. He also made it known that this would be a paid gig. I don't think he realized how much of a blow his offer was for me. Being shot down for a job I was likely viewed as unqualified for because of years of ableist gaslighting, only to be asked to talk about my experience with ableism. A paying gig is a paying gig and I could use the money.

Over the past summer (2022) I had two intense job interview situations play out for me. Again, a good friend lined up the opportunity to apply for a job. It happened to be at the very college I had attended twice now. It seemed promising, my friend had put in a good word for me as we had worked together previously, and the college showed some interest in me. They arranged an interview with me over zoom, and after meeting with them, I felt as though it had gone really well. I was disappointed to learn that I didn't get the job and that they had gone with someone more “personable” than me. It wasn't until later when I found out that while I was given a Zoom interview, the rest of the candidates were given in-person interviews. The experience really set me back, leaving me wondering how I could get a job if I wasn’t even able to get in the door in the first place.

That being said, I had no idea what I was in for with my next interview. I found the job posting on the website Indeed, and their requested qualifications basically read like my resume, right down to the prepress work at my first job. Again, a Zoom interview was lined up. I prepared myself as usual and felt very confident in myself. The woman I met with was the manager I would report to, and we spent the better part of 45 minutes talking about our shared common print world experiences. Right down to the antiquated prepress software we were both trained on. Even our personal chemistry clicked, which was nice because it was obvious we would be working closely together. I could tell the interview was wrapping up and she said she had one last question. She asked if I would feel comfortable making printing plates while she was away on vacation. Having done this thousands of times at my old shop I figured it wouldn’t be an issue. However, up to this point I hadn’t disclosed my disability. I said that I didn’t see it as an issue as long as it didn’t involve any heavy or awkward lifting. I then said that I am a person with disability, that means for me that I use a manual wheelchair and am able to both stand and walk short distances unassisted. For these reasons I am limited in what sorts of physical labour I am able to do.

The whole mood of the interview changed. The interviewer disclosed that the job posting hadn’t stated that a requirement for the job was the ability to walk up a flight of stairs to access the prepress equipment. I suggested that maybe a workaround or solution could be found and she essentially put her foot down stating that she saw absolutely no way of how that would be able to happen. Grasping at straws I tried to at least leave on as positive a note as possible. I thanked her for her time, stating how much I appreciated the opportunity to interview at a company as well respected in the industry as theirs and that I was hopeful she might be able to consider a way to make things work. I never heard back from them after that.

To say I find myself in an existential dilemma would be an understatement. I am a creative person. I enjoy and find fulfillment in finding creative design solutions to peoples communication/marketing problems. Though, what is the solution when the thing that was the source of your livelihood starts to be the source of your questioning of your very existence? Why does it feel like for every move forward, there is more movement backward? Why does existentialism always feel like it creates far more questions than it answers? What does it all mean? All that I know is that the answer isn’t 42…[to be continued]

This memoir essay was published as a zine in Nov. 2022. If you enjoy it and feel you would like to support the author, you can find a pay what you can PDF or purchase a physical copy at