TUSCALOOSA, Al. — Finding a good job can be tough for everyone, but for someone with a disability, it’s even harder—even for people with disabilities and high levels of education.
Andrea Wagner has two degrees, but she’s spent years trying to get a job in higher education. After COVID-19 eliminated a job she’d just started, she decided to start her own company: Melanated Mastermindz. She now designs school supplies made for students of color.
“I wanted to provide cultural insight and preserve their eyesight,” she said of her paper-based products that encourage time away from screens.
Wagner is legally blind, and she wanted to create something for young people that would only help, not hurt, their growth.
“I don't want anybody to have to deal with some of the things I've had to deal with,” she said of her struggle to see since she was a young child.
With Melanated Mastermindz, Wagner can help students of color feel represented in a healthy way—not through more screen time.
“When I became a teacher at majority Black schools with almost exclusively Black students, I wanted to make sure that they knew, even as small as down to a classroom poster, they knew that they mattered,” explained Wagner. “So, I tried to find images with Black representation for educational resources, and I couldn't really. I found a few, but not enough."
That’s why she built her own, even after deciding to leave the school she was teaching at. Wagner was a teacher for several years, but experienced discrimination on the job.
“I end up quitting because I had a principal who, every chance she got, would say, ‘I know you have a disability, but’…‘I know you have a vision problem, but’ and this was in public, which is a HIPPA violation,” said Wagner. “And this was via email, which is a HIPPA violation. If you don't have my permission to disclose that I have a disability to another person, which is a HIPPA violation, that's not OK.
Wagner has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition in which she could go permanently blind at any time. She and her family first learned about her vision issues at a young age.
“My hearing was above average, but vision, I couldn't see the Christmas tree,” said Wagner. “I just remember my mom crying like hysterically because she was a pediatric nurse, and so she was used to helping kids get better, but she couldn't help me.”
Wagner explained that retinitis pigmentosa makes it look like she has permanent tunnel vision.
“It's like looking through a paper towel roll," she described.
She was told she’d always live at home, and that she might finish high school.
“I wasn't OK with that narrative. I don't let my disability define me, I think it drives me,” she said.
Two degrees later, Wagner is pursuing her PhD, but despite having an incredible resume, it’s hard to find work.
“One lady that was on the interview panel said I didn't give proper eye contact,” said Wagner. “Hard to do when you're legally blind.”
Having an ID, but not a driver’s license, is just one more hurdle.
“I'm often exited out of the applicant pool before I've even entered,” she said.
Even with a college education or other advanced degree, people with disabilities have twice the unemployment rate than people who don't.
One study found people with disabilities with an advanced degree earn $21,000 less per year than people without disabilities, even with the same education levels.
However, it's companies who are losing out. A study found that companies who specifically include disabled employees have 28% higher revenue than companies who are less inclusive.
“I would say that people with disabilities are the most innovative people in the world because we have no choice but to be,” said Wagner.
If only more people with disabilities got the chance.
“It's not because we can't do the job,” said Wagner. “We typically don't get the accommodations we need or are afraid to ask for them."
But she isn’t afraid anymore. After years of applying, Wagner is starting a new career at a nearby college, helping students with disabilities succeed.
“They're actually using my experience to make incoming students at that college better,” said Wagner, excited for the new opportunity ahead.
While she’s living in a moment she’s dreamed about-- running a business on top of a new dream job--she knows this is just the next chapter of fighting to be seen from the outside the way she sees herself on the inside.
“The only thing I can't do is drive and see twelve point five,” said Wagner. “That’s about it, and if people actually knew we are literally just people, then they might treat us like that."