Special education teacher Jana Sarmiento didn’t go into teaching because she wanted to.
She did it because her Filipino father demanded it because it would be more lucrative — she had originally wanted to be a chef — but she warmed up to the position slowly, and eventually, she became the leader of Bridges, a special education program within FUHSD.
Bridges is a program that aims to educate disabled young adults aged 18 to 22 years old who would normally be unable to find jobs within an otherwise abled society that expects workers to be verbal, ambulatory and able to read. Realizing that this would affect her students’ ability to find jobs outside of school, Sarmiento took matters into her hands and founded Creative Hands, where her students work together to sell homemade products like soap and candles.
“I told myself that if [my disabled students] can’t find a job outside, even if it was on campus, why don’t I just bring the job inside?” Sarmiento said. “That’s when I started to think of ideas like what can we do inside the classroom where … we can create jobs [and] tasks that they could actually do.”
The process of making the crafts that Creative Hands sells involves multiple steps, and Sarmiento has ensured that there are students at every step of the way. One student, for example, is especially adept at smelling and has been tasked with sorting the candles by their scent. Another loves the process of cooking and has the duty of overseeing the wax melting. Sarmiento says that disabled students would possess a magnified lack of self-esteem upon being unemployable, and this process lets them know that they can do at least one thing.
“If we [abled people] don’t have a job, we feel useless,” Sarmiento said. “How much more for [disabled people]? This is something they can do, and they feel good about themselves, and they’re so happy because they’ve accomplished something.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18.7 percent of disabled people were employed in 2017. By a stark contrast, the employment-population ratio for abled people was 65. While the employment rate for the disabled has risen since 2016, when the percentage of employed disabled people was 17.9, it remains relatively low. Sarmiento says that Creative Hands is part of an effort to advocate for workplace diversity and accessibility.
“We’re not that diverse to the point that you would understand what a child or a young adult with disability is until you’re actually there,” Sarmiento said. “And you realize, oh, there’s more they can do, they can actually do more than what we see.”
Community advocate for Silicon Valley Independent Living Center (SVILC) Christine Fitzgerald, who has cerebral palsy, agrees with this sentiment. She says that while there has been significant progress in the way of human rights for the disabled, there is still much progress to be made. She cites employment as an example: drastically lower numbers of disabled people are hired than abled people.
“To this day, there’s too many people in many companies just don’t necessarily understand or even can grasp that folks with disabilities can be effective workers,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re very capable of doing the job, given the right tools. In many instances, the employer doesn’t necessarily understand that they can get a tax exemption for hiring people with disabilities.”
Fitzgerald first became an advocate for disability through her parents, who not only emphasized physical independence within the family but psychological and spiritual independence as well. Her mother, in particular, has been a strong advocate for those with disabilities along with having been a special education teacher, and Fitzgerald in turn attributes some of her background in advocacy to her education.
In her work, she has observed that people in the U.S. generally tend to have better rights than those in, say, third-world countries. But though Americans enjoy better rights, they don’t necessarily enjoy full rights. As another example, Fitzgerald cited automatic doors being used by abled people for trivial activities like carrying laundry, blocking access and denying disabled people their right to use the doors for their designed purpose.
“There is, you know, certain barriers because of not having some protected rights as we do here in the United States,” Fitzgerald said. “Certainly, the people that I know are reaching out and trying to make a difference for everybody, no matter where they are.”