What good does it do to have a parking place right in the front of a building, if the front doors are too heavy to open and the elevator is out of service?
How does it help to make the exterior of a middle school handicapped accessible if the doorways to the classrooms are too narrow for a wheelchair?
What is the point in earning a degree in a high-demand field – and successfully complete an internship with a key government agency in that arena – only to be denied opportunities to apply that training and pursue a career in that occupation?
Those may seem like abstract questions about long-ago solved problems, but they actually are real-life, day-to-day snapshots of the life of people like Neima Izadi.
He was born with cerebral palsy and he uses a wheelchair. He doesn’t have full control and functionality with his hands, but he is intelligent, has an excellent vocabulary and is able to use a computer as well as anyone else.
“I can use a computer, but I mostly use my right hand for everything,” Neima said. “That’s my dominant hand.”
With the help of his family, Neima is an expert at overcoming obstacles. In fact, his daily life is a continuous series of obstacles that most people don’t even think about.
At age 29, more than four years after earning a degree from George Mason University, he is finding one obstacle frustratingly difficult to overcome.
“I have struggled to find a full-time paid gainful employment.,” Neima said. “I think part of the reason is that I’m disabled. I think the disability plays a good part in that.”
Neima speaks highly of the accommodations made for him by Loudoun County Public Schools. He graduated from Stone Bridge High School in 2007. There was one major issue, however, when he reported for his day of classes at Seneca Ridge Middle School.
Undoubtedly filled with the myriad emotions of any student venturing into a new school and big step in the educational process, Neima immediately discovered that the classroom doorways at the school were not wide enough for his wheelchair.
“They sent him home and told us they would figure something out,” said Mercedeh Izadi, Neima’s mother. “He missed like the whole first week before they sent him to Farmwell Station.
Neima said he went to River Bend for the last year of middle school, then he had a mostly positive experience at Stone Bridge.
“Thinking back to my school days, I can’t remember a time that I was bullied because of my disability or for any other reason,” Neima said. “In high school, I made my way around and was able to have a good time and feel respected. Which is in contrast to many people’s high school experience these days – disabled or not. Right now with the influx of bullying going around it’s quite prevalent.”
Attending GMU brought another set of obstacles. Transportation, for example, is something the family has always had to provide Neima, right up to the present.
“I would have to drive him every day, and while he was in his classes I would be in the library, trying to work out-of-office,” Mercedeh said. “Then, when I had to work at the office because of my position, his brother would do it and then his father had to do it.
“We have always tried not to rely on the system. Whatever Neima has needed, we have tried to be there for him.”
Mercedeh said another problem at GMU was making sure Neima had a work station he could use in every classroom.
“At the start of every semester, the school was supposed to provide a fold-up table that he could use – that’s it,” she said. “It was ever done. It got to the point where I would remember where one was from the last semester and I would go and lug it to the new classroom.”
In December of 2013, Neima earned a degree in criminology with an emphasis on homeland security. He also completed an internship with the United States Department of Justice.
“I honestly thought that job would be my doorway into other jobs,” he said. “I had security clearance and everything. I thought with that kind of set-up and that kind of experience looking for other jobs in the private sector and even in the government would be easier. but it turns out that wasn’t the case.”
Since then, Neima has been working with the GMU placement office and various other agencies, including some that specialize in placing people with disabilities.
“I’ve worked through various people and agencies to help me find work,” he said. “One of them is the local example of the DARS – Department of Rehabilitation Services. I got some interview help from them and even rewriting the resume. They send me job leads every now and again but one of my impressions with them is that they specialize more in helping people with intellectual or developmental disabilities find retail work. I would love to work at a retail store part-time … but the reality is most retail spaces aren’t set up to have people with (physical) disabilities actually work there.”
Through it all, Neima has tried to maintain a positive attitude.
“It would be easy to become jaded,” he said. “But I prefer to always put my best foot forward. I have friends, and I know there are a lot of other people, who are going through what I’m facing. I want to help them all.”
His mother says society is working to improve conditions for people like Neima, but not enough is being done to look at like from the prospective of disabled people.
“The system has good intentions, but often it stops in a place where it doesn’t go far enough,” Mercedeh said. “It’s good that they have handicapped parking, but then sometimes it doesn’t go to the door, and he can’t get through the door. This is a metaphor for everything.”
Neima currently has an unpaid position, monitoring Internet traffic for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. As an NGO – Non Government Organization – it is uncertain if that will ever lead to a full-time, paid position.
“Like many people with disabilities, Neima is very humble, very optimistic,” Mercedeh said. “He doesn’t want to make waves. He wants to be able to contribute to society. As time goes by, this gap between when you get out of school and finding meaningful employment get wider and wider.”
Mercedeh said it is difficult to watch her son work hard to get an interview and then hear nothing back about the position.
“What are you supposed to do?” his mother said. “What are you supposed to tell him for the next time?”