Thisabled: An Online Magazine for People with Disabilities
The comic that Robles refers to in his interview. Click here or on the image to enlarge. It shows a disabled man talking to an administrator at the Social Security office and asking, "So what you're saying is, that I have to be declared disabled and unable to work before I am allowed to go to work?"
A photo of Robles with PV Director Kathy Martinez and former PV manager Robin Savinar.
Proyecto Visión recently spoke with Javier Robles, Deputy Director of the New Jersey Division of Disability Services and President of the new website ThisAbled.com (the site’s name is a word play on “disabled” and refers to the fact that people with disabilities truly have many abilities to contribute to this nation). In the past, Robles has participated in PV’s conferences and newsletters to talk about employment issues. In this interview, he links those issues with the creativity, advocacy, and entrepreneurship expressed in the different offerings of ThisAbled, including its forums, blogs, calendar, online petition, and comic strips.
Proyecto Visión: Can you describe ThisAbled?
Javier Robles: ThisAbled is an online magazine that provides information for people with disabilities on various topics from health to wealth management. Another good portion of the website is a forum for people to talk to each other and interact for free. Those are the two big components of the ThisAbled website. I am also launching a sister site called Adssistant that is for people with disabilities and seniors to find personal care assistants and place classified ads.
PV: What are the primary goals of ThisAbled?
JR: The reason for starting the website was out of a sense of frustration that that there are websites out there, but when I would look through them it would be just the same old story. They didn’t have anything new, at least to me, in terms of what disabled people can hope to get in terms of advocacy and articles…the consumer aspect was really missing from stories.
Another aspect of ThisAbled is the blog feature which allows anybody, not just me, to set up their own blog and talk about disability issues. We’ve also set up a calendar site, because I found that a lot of websites have calendars that are not updated. Our calendar is up to date through next year and we continuously add new information that people send to us. Anybody who wants to can send us stuff for our calendar. It’s a good one-stop place to find out what’s going on nationally and so forth.
PV: How does your experience in the New Jersey Division of Disability Services (DDS) fit in with your goals at ThisAbled?
JR: One of the advantages of having worked at [the DDS] for 10 years is that I’ve really seen all kinds of people and what their abilities and real disabilities are. I’ve also learned a lot doing stuff with employment and people with disabilities. I’ve done a governor’s conference on employment, marketing and outreach, interviewed people, stuff for Latinos, for African Americans… So I’ve had the benefit of actually seeing people with disabilities come to a conference not really knowing what they want to do, but leaving and actually saying, “Well, maybe I don’t want to stay at home; maybe I do want to be a contributing taxpayer; maybe I do want to be employed.”
Because the reality is, and I tell this to people who call us all the time and just want to go straight to Social Security, “If you want to be poor for the rest of your life, Social Security is a great option, because once you’re on Social Security doing nothing except collecting a government benefit, you will be poor for the rest of your life.” It’s important for people to really explore their options. You really have to look ahead. Parents [of young disabled people] have to say, “Oh, my child is in the 4th, 5th, whatever grade, what’s their future going to be like? Is their future going to be one of collecting Social Security or is going to be one where they actually become managers and deputies and own their own businesses?”
Right now, people with disabilities are probably at their lowest ebb ever. They probably feel like there’s no hope in terms of employment, because we have millions upon millions of people who are unemployed who have disabilities. But I tell those people now is the best time to get going, to get their skills up, to be ready, because they should compete with those people. They should go out there; they should be competing. They should be applying to jobs. When the economy picks up again, they should be the first in line.
PV: ThisAbled is also working on Facebook, using email, doing social networking…
A group which I’m pretty passionate about is the group with the petition: “Create 5% federal jobs for people with disabilities by 2013.” If you go to the ThisAbled Nation Facebook group, you’ll see it says “Sign the petition” … and you can click to sign the petition.
One of the biggest reasons why I think this petition is important… is because the federal government has told businesses to hire people with disabilities, but at the end of the day, when you look at their statistics, they have 0.97% people with disabilities in the federal workforce. That’s dismal, that’s beyond dismal. People have said to me, “Doesn’t 5% seem like a low number?” It really isn’t, compared to what they have now, which is less than 1%. So, I thought 5% was a fair number to ask the feds to do. And, I’ve worked [in the field of employment for people with disabilities] for a good 10 years now and I’m not discouraged, but I’m very irritated with a system that says, “Well, people need to hire people with disabilities,” but no one wants to take responsibility for the actual hiring… I think the federal government needs to be the first … to step up and say, “We’re going to hire people with disabilities, not because they’re disabled, but because it’s what we need to do as a country, and it’s what we need to do to make sure that employment starts here at the federal government.” Then, get states to hire and then, get businesses to hire.
The disability rate at the feds right now is worse than it was before the ADA, if you can believe that. You can’t tell me, as someone who works with people with disabilities, who runs with people with disabilities, who has created conferences for employment of people with disabilities, that there aren’t qualified people with disabilities out there. There are many qualified people with disabilities, but very few of them have a chance to get the foot in the door.
PV: Is increasing minority participation in the disability community one of the goals of ThisAbled or just one of the realities?
JR: I don’t think that in the past we [in the disability community] have included everybody. I don’t think we’ve included African-Americans with disabilities or Latinos with disabilities. Yet I think it is important to do that, because we all have a contribution to make as people with disabilities. We can’t shelter ourselves any longer from the fact that… whether you’re African-American or white or whatever, we’re all going through the same issues. People are losing programs, people are losing Medicaid, people are losing jobs, we’re all suffering.
I think it’s important to really get out in front, especially for Latinos. Generally, we as a community in the United States do such a good job at starting businesses; we do such a good job of coming to a place that has been desolate and starting a new community there, creating employment. So Latinos with disabilities, we really need to step up to the plate and say, “Okay, it’s time for us to be part of it …to start business, to do something,” whether it’s writing on Proyecto Visión or on ThisAbled or… anywhere… [including] websites that are just mainstream writers and don’t really know our stories.
I think our stories are important because they mean a lot not just to us, but also to other communities. To say, “That person is going through the same or worse things than I am, so what’s so different between me and them?” Nothing really, when you think about it. The only difference is that maybe they have a few more resources or maybe not and maybe their skin color’s different or maybe not, but at the end of the day, whether you’re Puerto Rican or white, [government budget] cuts are going to affect everybody.
PV: What led you to do the ThisAbled Nation comic strips?
JR: I can be in situations that are just so ridiculous, so stupid, that they wouldn’t happen to anybody else. They would happen to somebody with a disability, but they wouldn’t happen to your average Joe. Lots of times I think, “Wouldn’t that be a great comic strip? Wouldn’t that be something funny, two little comic cartoons talking to each other?” I really was not happy with the quality of my drawing…but in my mind I can see all these things clearly. I know exactly what I want them to look like. I know how I want them to be placed, and I know where I want them to be. So I have to find someone local to do the drawing for me.
I have this character called Henry, who’s just a real smartass, and he’s highly irritable. He’s at the Social Security office telling the guy, “So, what you’re saying is that I have to be declared disabled and unable to work before I’m allowed to go to work?” A system that is set up for people with disabilities that really discourages us from doing things makes it difficult for us to have a normal existence. But, I think it’s important not to take life too seriously all the time. Sometimes you really have to find humor in the dumbest situations, in the crummiest places, because it’ll sustain you until you get to a better place.
PV: If our readers want to participate in ThisAbled, how would they go about it?
JR: They can send me an email at email@example.com and tell me if they’re interested in writing or participating in a forum or whatever else they want to do, and we’ll work with them.