Finding a job is simple. That is, if one has a degree, experience, connections and an able body. Things start to get tricky when one of those elements is missing, and nearly impossible when one suffers from physical disabilities — that, at least, is the experience of Jem Zero and Tora Brumalis. The Metro Detroit-based lesbian couple suffers from several disabilities and a variety of mental health issues that have made living a “normal” life a significant challenge.
However, despite the struggles that both Zero and Brumalis face, they make one thing very clear: they are just as human as anyone else — though they “don’t think it’s realistic” that many will care to remember that.
“That’s just what I hope,” Zero said. “There will always be someone who dehumanizes you, especially since we’re gay, trans and disabled.”
Zero, who is non-binary and uses ze/zir pronouns, said that ze’s heard all the usual negative comments from people before.
“Like, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ ‘That’s not my problem,’ ‘You’re irresponsible,’ ‘You should just try harder,’ ‘You’re lazy,’ ‘You’re a drain on society,’” ze said. “They have all these reasons why you’re still the one causing all your problems.”
But Zero asserted that it’s not for lack of trying that ze and Brumalis aren’t able to provide for themselves without assistance.
“It’s not widely known how much structural and institutional biases and oppressions keep people in inescapable poverty,” added Brumalis, who is also non-binary but uses she/her pronouns. “It’s a really dastardly scheme when you think about it.”
And they’re not alone in their struggle. For instance, a CBS News report showed that despite advances like the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there have been unintended consequences for those who have disabilities; like employers shying away from hiring disabled people because of the potential to incur cost in accommodating disabled employees.
Understanding the Need
Roughly 25.1 percent of adults in Michigan report being disabled. Plagued by persistent unemployment and poverty, Brumalis, like many others, applied for Social Security disability benefits, hoping to get back on her feet. She was denied Supplemental Security Income, and, while initially granted food assistance, both those benefits and her health insurance were compromised by a paperwork error from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. That error resulted in the account being closed.
An article in Bridge Magazine reports that eligibility depends on whether an applicant can no longer achieve “substantial gainful activity” in the labor market. The rapid rise in disability insurance is mostly associated with musculoskeletal conditions and those with mental illnesses, including chronic anxiety, depression and memory loss — categories that critics said can be too subjective.
Because many of those conditions remain difficult to prove, even with documentation by a physician or specialist, only about 40 percent of applicants make it through the application process and a backlogged appeals process without being rejected.
“Some systems are made deliberately difficult and bureaucratic to navigate — this is for abled people,” said Zero. “For disabled people, the confusing procedures are agonizing and can cause people to completely give up. I think they hope for that, to be honest.”
When They Can’t Just ‘Get a Job’
In 2017, 18.7 percent of people with a disability were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics . In contrast, the employment to population ratio for those without a disability was 65.7 percent.
Disability advocates point out that Americans with disabilities face a host of complex issues such as stigmas, typically lower education rates and higher rates of poverty. Each of those issues can add to the difficulties of finding a job while disabled.
For instance, Brumalis wants to work, but because she was perceived as a man while previously working in the retail sector, she was assigned a disproportionate amount of the physical labor tasks. Additionally, Brumalis was bussing from downtown Detroit to Roseville at 4 a.m. for four-hour shifts that paid minimum wage, which made it even harder to afford transportation costs and justify the demands of her position.
“That mentally and physically broke me,” Brumalis said. “After that, I wasn’t capable of doing much of anything and couldn’t stand the thought of going back into that kind of working environment — which is the most common environment because I don’t have a formal degree and most places don’t hire without some sort of degree or certificate and some experience. Even with the experience, I wouldn’t get most of the jobs I would be a good fit for. It’s kind of a break yourself or bust situation.”
After her attempt to get SSI failed, Brumalis has worked piecemeal gigs, such as sensitivity reading and private catering, to bring in money. Her attempts to get a steady job were unsuccessful for several months, until recently when she accepted a job as an event host in downtown Detroit. Still, her mental health and physical limitations make it difficult to work too many shifts.
Because underemployment is all too common for people with disabilities and low wages prevent workers from gaining independence, people like State Rep. Frank Liberati (D-Allen Park) have tried to shift that reality. In February he introduced House Bill 5587 — now in committee — which prohibits employers from paying an employee with a disability less than the minimum wage.
Zero is a freelance content creator who survives by doing art commissions and writing articles. Ze, too, has tried working fulltime for employers, but limitations beyond zir control make that difficult.
“I can only handle two to three hours of work and then I have to sleep,” ze said. “People don’t want to believe me when I say I can’t do something like stretch to press a button or bend down to file something away. If I bend down for 30 seconds, I end up with a back cramp for 30 minutes.”
Additionally, being autistic makes Zero feel “wrong” to people ze describes as “neurotypical,” or unaffected by disorders like autism.
“At my last job I tried really hard to be socially acceptable and friendly, but they just perceived me as ‘off’ which happens a lot to autistic people. That’s why I’m seeking jobs where I don’t have to rely on other people very much, because people can’t be friendly with me and I take it very personally,” Zero said. “I know you don’t always have to like your coworkers, but it’s very emotionally hard for me to deal with.”
One of the major problems with how disabled people are treated ze said is that there isn’t a physical impairment, a “sign,” or a “look” that indicates they are disabled.
Beyond zir cane and rollator, Zero seems abled on the outside and said ze constantly has to educate people about zir disability.
“I’ve looked for writing jobs and despite having an art degree, it’s very hard to get hired anywhere, especially somewhere that would work with my needs,” said Zero, who is doing zir best to finish an accounting certificate. Brumalis is also going to school, hoping to earn a computer information systems certificate for web design.
A Failed Solution
Now in their late 20s, Zero and Brumalis said they live their lives in a constant state of worry. With changes to Michigan’s public assistance programs, like Medicaid, they were hopeful that utilizing crowdfunding resources would help them stay afloat. They launched a GoFundMe page in May but had to take it down due to harassment from neo-Nazis.
“It wasn’t surprising to be confronted with such open contempt,” Brumalis said while reflecting on the comments that were posted to their page, which included anti-black racial slurs. “Being black and trans, you’re uniquely positioned to receive and see attacks on your character or ability, but desensitization just means it hurts less rather than not at all.”
Both she and Zero found the loss of support to be discouraging and haven’t attempted to make a new campaign.
This is troublesome for the couple, too, as they are uncertain about the future of their health care through the state’s Healthy Michigan Medicaid Plan under the Affordable Care Act. Come Jan. 1, 2020, the program might fall under work requirements – to work, look for work, volunteer or be in training or in school, for 80 hours each month, unless they are otherwise exempt, or risk losing their benefits.
“I would be in very severe trouble. I’ve never been on public assistance. This will be my first year figuring out how to report self-employment. If my work doesn’t meet the requirements, then I’m — excuse my language — fucked. I’ll probably die. I’m not saying that as an exaggeration. I will probably die,” said Zero, who relies on six medications daily, one that costs $1,000 a month.
Beyond that, finding work and translating that to survival is not easy, according to Brumalis.
“Food is expensive, doubly so when you have allergies, intolerances and/or dietary concerns . Transportation is expensive, insurance rates aren’t affordable for low-income people, ride sharing costs have gone up,” she said. “You spend most of what you make keeping employment and paying bills without the opportunity to effectively save.”
The hardest part, said Zero, has been proving they truly need and deserve financial support, website or not.
“You will get more support for a dog than you will for a black woman,” said Zero about Brumalis’ experiences. “It’s just a fact. People don’t care as much about women of color.”
Zero, who is white, points to zir emotional support dog, Reyah, who needed medical attention following a seizure a few months ago.
“I got almost $1,000 in under 48 hours for her,” said Zero, about Reyah’s GoFundMe page. Ze explained the racial empathy gap, which has been studied by numerous researchers.
“White people believe black people don’t experience pain,” ze said. “People will look at a struggling black woman and all they’ll do is criticize her and think bad things about her. They don’t respect her suffering. They justify it with, ‘Oh, the animal is innocent.’”
The implications of that statement are clear.
“It’s equal parts racism and a general disregard for people’s experiences that you don’t personally have any intimate knowledge of,” Brumalis said. “No one except for black people know what it’s like to be black in a country that hates black people.”
Consistently, complaints of discrimination filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights on the basis of disability are second only to complaints on the basis of race. At this point, the couple has become numb to the fact that people have dehumanized LGBTQ disabled people to a group they neither understand nor recognize.
“People think we’re parasites,” said Zero. “Our GoFundMe page is not the only place where we’ve been told to kill ourselves.”
But while access to money is important, it’s not the only thing Zero and Brumalis need. When asked what they are looking for, Zero emphasized the need for “accessible opportunities.”
“Opportunities that consider our disabilities, but also consider that we can do excellent work if provided proper accommodations,” ze said. “People should be open to providing accommodations, open to reaching out to disabled people to give them that shot instead of just assuming they can’t handle something. Put in a good word for or refer a disabled person for the job. Make those connections to give them a leg up.”
A Glimmer of Hope
The couple met on OKCupid at the end of March 2018. Zero messaged Brumalis right away.
“I refer to it as love at first sight,” said Zero about seeing Brumalis’ profile picture on the dating site. “I was hitting on her really hard, but Tora was so anxious about me not liking her that she didn’t notice.”
Almost immediately, the two started dating. It wasn’t long before they fell head over heels for each other.
“We bonded over a lot of similar experiences,” said Brumalis. “We’re both kind of iffy around new people. We want to open up to people. We want to get to know people. We want to let people in, but it’s hard because you aren’t really sure how people are going to react to you. You don’t know what’s going to be the part of you that people think is too weird.”
In the first couple weeks after meeting, they spent more time together than they did apart.
“It was so fast. I don’t usually do stuff like this,” Zero said.
And after only one month of dating, Zero and Brumalis moved into an apartment together.
At that time Brumalis was homeless because her family would not support her transition. Zero got word about an available apartment and the two ran with it.
Brumalis said she was initially nervous.
“I was pessimistic about the suggestion. I would be moving from a relatively stable, although temporary, arrangement to something brand-new and tenuous,” she said. “It was hard to grasp the idea that it could work, being that we had only just met.”
Becoming stereotypical U-Haul lesbians was not in either of their plans, but it was a life-saving act during a time when LGBTQ rights, disability rights, healthcare and workers’ rights are under attack.
The two have said that their companionship has significantly improved both of their mental health struggles.
“Having company keeps me grounded. I freak out when I’m alone, especially with my physical limitations. When Tora is with me, daily tasks don’t seem so insurmountable,” Zero said.
Conquering New Challenges
Unfortunately, Brumalis and Zero were unable to stay at the apartment. Low income and roommate problems meant they couldn’t afford rent, so they moved into Zero’s family home. “It sucks not being able to live alone, but I love this house, despite the fact that it’s falling apart in some places,” Ze said, referring to the fact that the home was built in 1948 by zir great-grandfather.
Despite that fact, only six months into their relationship, Zero proposed.
“I had been planning to propose, but ze beat me,” said Brumalis. “I was shocked, but happy, and it gives me hope that we can build a successful life together.”
“I love her so much, and my mum and sibling do, too,” Zero said. “They’ve adapted so well to how quickly everything happened.”
As the couple enters the new year planning their life together, including marriage and children, there are a lot of unknowns — especially considering the proposed legislation against trans people.
President Donald Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services is considering an interpretation of Title IX that would effectively erase protections for people who identify with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth from federal civil rights laws – ensuring that the laws do not prohibit discrimination against transgender people in any setting, including the workplace, housing, schools and health care.
“Some people only choose to be equitable because the law of the land will punish them for deviating from that behavior,” said Brumalis. “If trans people lose protections, there will be a surge in assaults, unemployment and homelessness because there won’t be anything to shield and protect us from bigotry.”
Despite the fear, the two feel safe together. While the holidays can be tough for people with traumatic experiences — which both Brumalis and Zero have — they’re making a grasp at positivity. Though gifts are difficult to buy on a limited budget, ze said that ze is “going to try my best anyway.”
“I really hope our story helps to push the local community toward making life easier for people like us,” Zero added.
“It would be nice to be able to live my life and exist in public without having to constantly fight,” Brumalis said.
Those interested in donating toward Tora and Jem’s bid at surviving this winter, funds can be added to their Paypal pool online at gaybe.am/rG. Any contributions will go to holiday celebrations and seasonal house repairs. Additionally, those interested in potentially hiring Jem or Tora about writing, commission work, sensitivity reading or community issues, they can be contacted here: Tora, firstname.lastname@example.org or Jem, email@example.com; www.jemzero.com; Jem Zero (on Facebook).