Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Patrice Jetter has been with Inspired Threads from the start. She has grown to be one of our most skilled designers and trainers. An artist in spirit and by trade, her gifts span the visual and performing arts and come alive in her public speaking and self-advocacy work.
Patrice is passionate about letting the world know how important it is to give people with disabilities the chance to do what everyone else gets to do -- have a job with purpose and pays a fair wage that allows for independence and security.
Inspired Threads offered Patrice something she hadn’t seen before...a job that provides community, compassion, fun, and a competitive rate paycheck. Inspired Threads offers opportunities for our designers to develop valuable work and personal skills, and to grow in their careers. No one is held back by attitudes, policies, and practices that create barriers to access and success.
According to Patrice, one of the biggest reasons people with disabilities can’t find work is because the people in HR make assumptions about what they can and can’t do by how they look or talk or some stereotype. They don’t get to know them and give them a chance to show how they can contribute.
Patrice's Journey, in her own words...
I remember my first time applying for a job. It was before ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) was signed, which made it illegal for people to discriminate against people with disabilities.
I remember how hard it was to get even the most mundane jobs before ADA. I would apply for the same work as another family member, and they would get hired and not me, even if they had no experience.
Denied Because of My Disability
One time, I applied for a job at a ceramic store where you paint your own dishes and things. I thought that with my experience as an artist, I could get a job there. My niece, who was 16, applied for the same job. She doesn’t have an artistic bone in her body. Still, they gave her the job and not me. I felt really bad.
Like a lot of times, they argued that it wasn’t because of my disability. But I knew it sure wasn’t because of my niece’s qualifications that she got the job! After they hired her, she hated it. Because she was 16 and had no experience, she got all the bad jobs, so she quit. I would have stayed.
Pathmark- Good Job, Good People, Good Pay!
My first job was working at Pathmark. I got the job because I walked in and introduced myself. I said, “Hi, I’m Patrice. I have a disability. Do you have any jobs I can do?"
I did that because I knew if I filled out an application, they’d reject me. I knew the manager, she asked if I could bag groceries and I said yes.
At the interview, they asked, “Why should we hire you here?” I said because I am tall, and I can reach all the items on the top shelf that the customers cannot. I knew this because I always went food shopping with my mom so I could help her get the food off the top shelves. That answer got me the job! You would hear: “Customer service needed in Aisle 16." And I’d come all tall and get the items and put them in the customer’s cart. When the senior-bus brought my mom’s friends shopping, I bagged their groceries, so their bags were not too heavy for them to carry on the bus.
Work, Healthcare, Poverty - Balancing Benefits with Independence
At Pathmark, they paid me minimum wage. It was a job that I could handle. I was hired as a full-time employee, and I was also getting SSI (Supplemental Security Income), which made me eligible for Medicaid. Having Medicaid was important. With my cerebral palsy, I had lots of doctor visits. So, I needed Medicaid to cover my healthcare. And I needed to stay on SSI to get Medicaid.
I ended up having to leave Pathmark after about two months and go to the sheltered workshop because I got a letter saying that they were going to cut off my Medicaid because I was going to get benefits from my job. I didn’t understand. I had to work at Pathmark for a year before I would even get benefits. But that didn’t matter to Medicaid. So, I had to leave my job.
From Pathmark Back to the Workshop- Choosing Healthcare Over Financial Independence
The pay was low at the workshop because, by law, they could pay below minimum wage. It made it hard for me to have money to buy food. But it didn’t affect my benefits. I brought home a paycheck once for 76 cents.
My ex-boyfriend got a paycheck for 13 cents. I put that check it into a scrapbook. I could walk to work which was good because I could never afford a car. Most months I couldn’t afford food. Sometimes I had food stamps. My mom helped me when she could, but not all the time.
(In many states, people with disabilities are eligible for Medicaid while they receive SSI. SSI has strict rules about how much money a person can have and earn. So many people must choose between making more money and losing SSI and Medicaid or limiting what they earn to maintain the Medicaid coverage. This is a very complex issue with significant consequences for people with disabilities that we will write about in future blogs, stay tuned.)
Crossing Guard - 25 Years!
Most people can’t say they’ve been on a job 25 years.
I can say that with my crossing guard job. I became a crossing guard the Monday after Thanksgiving in November 1993. I started in Montclair. I lived there and they knew me in my town.
I filled out the application every year and I was turned down for lack of experience. But one day I saw that the ad said: “No experience necessary. Will train.”
I come from three generations of law enforcement, so I asked my brother the cop, what am I doing wrong, why do they keep rejecting me? My brother told me it costs $125/day of taxpayer money to train a guard. To get certified, you need to be out there with a traffic cop training for 21 hours. They didn’t want to spend the money. I thanked my brother for that information.
The following year I filled out another application. This year we had a new mayor. And when you get a new mayor, you need to score brownie points. I sent the Mayor my application, the article that said: No experience necessary. Will train, and the letter that said I was turned down due to lack of experience. I said that I can’t prove I’m being discriminated against. But I can prove I’ve been treated unfairly. Two weeks later I got a letter saying that I need to take an exam, and if I pass it, I’ve got the job. The rest is history!
Inspired-Threads - A New Career!
Inspired Threads is exciting! Not only do I love the work, but it is something that I can do from home now during the pandemic to earn some money when my crossing guard job is closed. My boyfriend, Garry, is involved too. We worked together to help sew 500 masks for Isles to hand out to the Trenton community. What is important too is we are like a family. We all help each other while we're sewing together...on Zoom. And, I am doing what I do best -- being an artist, helping people, and creating things that make people happy.
What Do People Need to Know about Employing People with Disabilities?
I would say that people with disabilities value our jobs like everyone else. Every person with a disability should be given a chance. A person without a disability can make mistakes on a job too. Don’t judge people by the cover. We work hard.
One of the issues that I had was a lot of times when I’d get an interview, they would judge me on the grounds of my disability. Like if you had an obvious disability, they would judge you based on how you looked and not give you a chance to see if you could do the job. A lot of employers don’t want to take a chance. They think it’s going to be a lot of problems. They’d just make assumptions. For example, if they think a person with a disability will have trouble with transportation, they are like UGGHH and don’t hire them. Some employers think it will be hard to make reasonable accommodations. They don’t even want to try. Everyone’s situation is different. People should be looked at as individuals. For people with disabilities, it cannot be one size fits all.
It can be done, just look at Inspired Threads!
If you’d like to learn more and do more about making meaningful employment possible for people with disabilities check out the What You Can Do Campaign!