Employment Resources for HIV-Positive Job Seekers

Belo Cipriani with his guide dog Oslo

As a Community Grand Marshal for the 2015 San Francisco Pride Parade, I spent the last month attending pride events all over San Francisco. With my guide dog, Oslo, I moseyed through festive crowds, shaking hands and giving hugs. And while I met tons of smart and funny people, there is one person that stood out from the bunch.

He had large hands, a deep voice and was exactly my age; he was also full of questions.

“How did you become a writer? Who helped you get your writing jobs? Wow, you are a teacher too? How did you get that job?”

As a former career advice blogger, I shared my job search tips without hesitation. Yet, as he confessed that he was HIV positive, and had been looking for work for almost a year, I thought about the challenges of finding work with a disability that’s not visible to the public. We exchanged contact information and I asked him to send me a note so I could forward along some information, but I never heard back from him. I did, though, hear from other HIV-positive men, who, like the guy from the pride party, were deeply frustrated with their inability to find a job.

The unemployment rate among the disabled is high. Among the blind community, for example, it’s at 70 percent, and I believe it’s because people with disabilities don’t always get the interview training needed to land a job with a disability. Furthermore, many people living with a disability are not always familiar with the agencies that offer employment services.

Since I don’t have any experience with looking for work with an invisible disability, I reached out to the Positive Resource Center in San Francisco. Within an hour of leaving a message, I was on the phone with the Executive Director of the organization, Brett Andrews. And a short bit after that, I was exchanging emails with the agency’s Supervising Employment Specialist, Dennis Reilly.

The Positive Resource Center serves HIV-positive clients and individuals with mental health disabilities. They work with San Francisco residents, but can also work with clients from other counties through the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Reilly, who has been with Positive Resource Center for 18 years, says staying competitive in a changing economy is tough for all job seekers, since they must work on both hard and soft skills. PRC is facing this challenge head on by providing classes in software applications, like Microsoft Office, as well as by offering workshops in interviewing and self-branding.

“The Employment Specialists at PRC,” shared Reilly, “are really skilled in helping a client identify their ‘brand’ -- to differentiate themselves from other job seekers. We call it uncovering your ‘unique promise of value.’”

Reilly believes employers are mostly interested in what a person can offer and not what the person is seeking from them. Therefore, conversations around accommodations should happen once someone receives an offer letter and not during the interview process.

“The most common request,” continued Reilly, “is for flexible working hours, as some clients report difficulty with medications or sleep issues. Our experience is that most employers are very willing to provide a ‘reasonable accommodation,’ as long as the essential functions of the job can still be performed.”

In addition to offering vocational training, PRC offers counseling around earned income while on disability benefits.

“For HIV-positive clients, understanding the impact of earned income on disability benefits is critical, and PRC offers a monthly workshop on that topic,” Reilly said.

You can learn more about the Positive Resource Center on the web at www.PositiveResource.org.

For those living outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, I encourage you to reach out to your local agencies to see if they offer employment services. Personally, I have received employment services from many different agencies. Most recently, I had the San Francisco LGBT Center help me revise my resume. So, you may be surprised by who in your area can help with your job search.

Looking for work with a disability is hard, but with the right support, it can become manageable.

Belo Cipriani is a freelance journalist, the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams, and a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind. He was voted “Best Disability Advocate” in the Bay Area in 2015 by SF Weekly. Learn more at BeloCipriani.com.

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