Get to Know Sarah Blahovec, Huffington Post Blogger and Activist
By Devin Tomb
Editor's Note: We all have challenges that we have to face in life, but for people with disabilities — visible or invisible — it can be a constant burden to prove to potential employers and coworkers alike that they are just as hard-working and capable as their able-bodied peers. (The current unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10.4 percent, almost twice as high as the rate for people without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.) Every day this week, you’ll meet incredible women whose disabilities haven’t defined them — in fact, their resilience and strength have propelled them past Triathlon finish lines, onto The Huffington Post, and even into the Chicago Mayor’s office. What we hope will come of this? Not only more acceptance and understanding in the workplace — but also for you to know that you can do and be anything you want. And whatever you fear might hold you back? It doesn’t make you weak — you’re stronger for having gone through it.
Name: Sarah Blahovec
City: Washington, D.C.
Job: Huffington Post blogger, activist, and administrative assistant
If you're one of the 99.9 percent of Americans who reads The Huffington Post, do yourself a favor and check out HuffPost Accessibility, a new vertical filled with compelling stories on inspiring people within the disability community. The woman behind it all? Twenty-two-year-old Sarah Blahovec. When she’s not working her day job as an administrative assistant at MorganFranklin Consulting, she’s whipping out her own power-punch content (all you politicians out there, listen up) and working with all of the influencers who've taken note of this promising platform. "I've been contacted by everybody from freelance writers to the head of an international disability organization, representing physical disabilities, medical conditions, and mental illnesses," she said. As a recent graduate who has grown up with Crohn’s Disease, she knows first-hand how important this work is. She sat down with us to share all the details:
Levo: You have a day job and a side-hustle. Tell us about that.
Sarah Blahovec: By day, I work as an administrative assistant for a contractor. It's very difficult, especially in D.C., to get a full-time job right out of school, so I went with administrative support because that’s a lot of what’s open to you coming straight out of school in this market. Especially in terms of government jobs, a lot of them require master’s degrees. It’s kind of how college degrees have become the new high school diploma.
Then at night, I write for the Huffington Post. I started blogging for them and ended up petitioning them to create a disability platform, which has since launched. Some people reach out to me and say, “I’m working toward this cause or I have this personal goal,” and so I end up writing their stories. I wrote two recently on people with spinal cord injuries. It’s really expanded my advocacy abilities by being able to reach out to a wider audience.
Honestly, it's kind of weird to be at the bottom of the work ladder during the day, but when I come home at night, I’m interacting with this really diverse group of people. The problem right now is figuring out how to turn the unpaid side-hustle into something that actually makes money! Especially whenever you’re starting out doing a lot of stuff for free, it can be very difficult to transition, because people will be like, Well, why should I pay you to do this kind of stuff? But at the same time, it can be really fulfilling to come home and have this sense of direction in terms of what I want to do.
You certainly haven't let your own disability, Crohn’s Disease, hold you back throughout all of this. What have you had to overcome in order to be where you are today?
SB: I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at 15. It’s an autoimmune disease, and I like to describe it as my body identifies my digestive system as an enemy, and so my body attacks it, causing a lot of inflammation. Most people think it's just a lot of digestive issues, and it can be a lot more than that. You can get fatigue, dramatic weight loss, anemia, all of these really horrible symptoms, and it’s a chronic illness, so you go through remission and relapse. Right now I am in remission, which is great, but whenever I was first diagnosed at 15, I had been training to become a professional violinist. I eventually decided it was unsustainable to pursue with my illness because the rigor for violin is that you need to be able to put as much time into it as possible. People practice 10 hours a day, but whenever you’re sick, it can really hold you back. I was also very interested in foreign policy, so I went to American University for international relations. During the entire time I was in school, I had an infection that I couldn’t get rid of, which caused several visits to the hospital for emergency surgeries. Despite that, I still graduated a year early, summa cum laude.
After I graduated, I realized how difficult it is to find mentors with disabilities in international relations. I was trying to figure out, you know, Where do I go from here? Because I couldn't figure out how to balance my health needs with my dream. In foreign services, you need to be able to have a clean bill of health, same for the Peace Corps, so how could I figure out how to do these things that I wanted to do and still manage my health? That's whenever I started the search for disability mentors, and that’s what ended up shifting my focus — realizing that it wasn’t just international relations, but it’s in every single field that there are not enough mentors for people with disabilities.
What progress needs to be made in order to make work environments for people with disabilities more supportive and inclusive?
SB: A long list of things! First, people need to have better training and understanding about what disability is and what it isn't. A lot of people don’t understand that a lot of disabilities are invisible. Like with mine, you cannot tell from the outside. I’m not in a wheelchair. I don't look sick, and people don’t always understand that a lot of medical conditions can be on the inside completely, and you still have just as debilitating an issue. And so there can be a lot of suspicion, especially in the workplace. Another thing is the way that disability is treated in the hiring process. At this point, people with disabilities — especially people with invisible disabilities — have to minimize the impact it has on their lives. You're afraid of mentioning any medical problems during the hiring process, because even though it is against the law to discriminate against someone with a disability, they'll just say, "We went with someone else because they were more qualified."
Essentially, for someone with a disability, it feels like you have to prove over and over again that you’re a competent worker. For people who don't have disabilities, it can feel like they aren't questioned as much — as in, people don't wonder, Oh, is there personal life going to get in the way of their job? It’s expected that they earned what they have on their resume. But when you have a disability, it's always proving that this isn’t going to get in the way, you're not going to be a liability to a company. We have as much value as our resume says—sometimes we have even more, because we’re used to adapting to a world that doesn't consider our needs normal.
When you have tough days, what do you say to yourself to stay motivated?
SB: I hope this doesn’t sound horribly vain, but whenever I get good feedback on the writing that I do, I go back and I look at it and say, Hey, I was able to do this and these people were able to appreciate it. And whenever I receive mail from people who want to blog for Huffington Post, I know it could change their life in a way, thanks to this new outlet that can help them grow their opportunities. What I want to do above all is to be able to help people, especially the community of people with disabilities. I just kind of refocus and remember that yes, my day job is paying the rent and the school loans and that’s important, but it’s also important for me to realize that I’m still making progress with my more personal career goals.
And lastly, for rising seniors and new grads who might be feeling nervous about going through this job process, given a disability — invisible or visible — what advice would you give to them?
SB: The greatest thing that I’ve learned so far is that I'm not alone, and finding a community that also wants to address these challenges. So, it might be difficult, but I think it's really important to search for that support network. It might not be people who have the same condition, or are in the same field, but find people who can kind of empathize with your situation and help talk through it as peer mentors. It's important to find the support and people who can understand kind of the challenges you're going through, and the situations you’re going through, and help come up with constructive ways to work around those challenges and overcome them.
More From Levo:
• #StrongerForIt: Liz Davis, competitive Athlete and Web Catalogue Administrator
• #StrongerForIt: Karen Tamley, City of Chicago Comissioner of Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities
• This American Runner Proves Why You Should Always Follow Through
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Blahovec