We still have our dreams

This entry originally appeared on my disability blog, I hate stairs.

Something happened the other day. A coincidence of sorts. I had a moment where everything came together to lift me out of what seemed like a hopeless situation. This is the kind of coincidence that one feels was intended to happen. To explain, I’m going to have to be honest and open. It’s hard for me to write about disability sometimes because I am not anonymous on this blog. You know me. I’m Blake Watson. You can look me up. I have no anonymity. But in the interest of shedding light on what I’ve been going through, I must be a bit more liberal about my own privacy. This is going to be an epic blog post.

I’ve been out of college since May 2009. I’ve been trying to find work ever since. I know I am a good web designer. I know I have a lot to learn. But I know I can succeed if given the chance. I want to contribute. I need to contribute. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on disability.

I’m an avid learner when it comes to web design. I read constantly. I keep up with best practices and technology. I study principles of design and apply them to my work. All this has managed to keep me satisfied. I justified not having a job to myself by saying that I have been using the time productively, getting better and better at my craft. My good friend Jeff Horton, president of Stop SMA, put me to work on Stop SMA’s websites, and that has really helped me keep going during these last two years.

Earlier this year, I worked briefly as a Happiness Engineer for Automattic on a trial basis. In short: it was awesome. I could work from home just like everyone else in the company. I got to interact with great people. And I got to help people with their WordPress.com blogs. A win-win-win. But I’ve always told myself that I wouldn’t go for a position if my disability kept me from doing a good job. The primary function of the job was replying to email. And one of the things I am slowest at is writing email. Code is easier. I have tools that make me much more proficient at writing code. But good old-fashioned English language I can only output at the mind-blowing rate of about 18 words per minute, thanks to HippoRemote¬†and KeyStrokes. Otherwise it would be a lot slower. Let me be clear. Automattic did everything right. My team leader said she was looking at quality over quantity. They gave me honest feedback and they offered to help however they could. I will forever be grateful for that. But in the end, support requests were flooding in and I didn’t feel like my output was going to help the Happiness team much. In the interest of the company and the users, I ended my trial with Automattic on good terms. It was back to square one.

About three weeks ago, things looked like they might turn around for me. I applied for a web-related position with a Mississippi-based company (of which I won’t name). I completed a questionnairre that was reserved for only the “serious” candidates. I did a one-hour phone interview. The next day, I did an in-person interview. I talked to three people and the entire interview was nearly two and a half hours. Few candidates made it that far, possibly me and one other person. I was told I would here from them, regardless of whether I was hired or not, in a couple of days.

It’s been three weeks. I’ve yet to receive any contact whatsoever. I may have to eat my words (in fact, I hope I’ll have to) but it seems that they hired the other candidate and the courtesy of calling me to let me know just fell through the cracks. I’m not making any accusations, but after a while, I start to wonder why I am able to make it to in-person interviews but never get an offer. How much does my disability affect my chances? I don’t want to think it affects them at all because that would be a tough pill to swallow.

So here I sat. At the very desk on which I am writing this post. And somehow, I stumbled upon the September 1 episode of The Big Web Show with Jeffrey Zeldman and Dan Benjamin. Let me set the stage. This podcast is big, as the title suggests. Jeffrey Zeldman is like the Godfather of web design. His circle of influence hit me early in my quest to be a web designer. And Dan Benjamin is this mad genius with a perfect radio voice who, I’m convinced, can carry on a conversation on any topic with any person and look like a seasoned expert in that area.

So there I was. And I they were covering a topic dear to my heart. Disability. And not just the usual screen reader angle. They interviewed this amazing woman, Marissa, who in many ways is going through the same thing that I’ve been going through for the last two years. And they were just chatting about her disability. And she wants to be a web designer. And she needs to work from home. And Jeffrey and Dan were taking to heart her struggle and sharing it with the world. And it was amazing.

Back in 2008, I managed to attend the awesome conference for people who make websites, An Event Apart (co-owned by Zeldman). It was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had. And I want to go to another one. But traveling is extremely difficult. And accessible hotel rooms are expensive. And the conference ticket price is expensive. So I haven’t gone back. I don’t have any web designer friends in my area. I’m isolated from that world. And it’s hard to get in when you’re isolated.

But here was Marissa. She made it to The Big Web Show and she was sharing with Jeffrey and Dan my exact frustrations, as well as my aspirations. While listening to the podcast, I get a phone call from my Mom. She felt bad about the whole job thing and wanted to take me to eat and see a movie (don’t hate, Moms are awesome!). It was in that moment that I realized something.

We still have our dreams.

Regardless of whether this company hires me or that company hires me, I am going to continue making websites. And with each one I will get better and better. Hearing Marissa’s story made me remember when I was in that same predicament. Well, not exactly the same. But close. I was just getting started in web design. It was scary. I didn’t have the means (physically or financially) to go to a design school. But I knew I wanted to make websites. I lucked out and had what may very well be the best course I ever took: Advanced Languages I with Dr. Rodney Pearson. In it, I learned JavaScript and HTML basics. I began picking up CSS and design principles on my own. I started making websites. Starting is at least half the battle. Regardless of what obstacles came in my way, I pushed forward in stubborn ignorance, determined to do what I wanted.

Sitting at my computer the other day, I realized that I had, indeed, become a web designer. I make websites. And not having a job right now isn’t going to take that away from me. I still have my dreams. One day, something big is going to happen. I’ll land my dream job. Or I’ll become a successful freelancer. And even if neither of those things happen, I’ll at least keep volunteering for charity, working on personal projects, and contributing some of my creations to the world (WordPress theme is in the works!).

We still have our dreams. We have them when we are frozen with fear. We have them when people think it silly to reach for them. We have them when it seems everything is working against us. Sometimes life can appear a bit hopeless. But when we don’t quit believing in ourselves, when we have friends and family behind us, and when we take a leap of faith, who or what is going to stop us?