On Unpaid Internships


I support them.  Allow me to explain where I’m coming from.

As a severely-disabled person, I can’t work anything paid at this time, aside from very occasional babysitting for families I know are friendly and who are well-aware of and accommodating toward my disabilities.  Such accommodating jobs, even occasional or temp/seasonal or part-time work, are hard to impossible to find, especially in this economy.

Yes, this includes paid internships…  I am, at this time, only capable of occasional or unpaid work.  Even if the paid work is an internship and learning-focused.  Paid internships have more expectations and requirements than unpaid ones, because they pay you, and so expect you (rightfully) to contribute more to them than they contribute to you.  Unpaid internships, on the other hand, I’ve found to be the reverse (they are all about what the intern wants to learn; the employer may benefit, but to be honest, they often do not benefit as much as the intern does, because of all the training they have to do for little reward as the intern doesn’t stay very long).

I am extremely grateful to all the companies that have given me the opportunity to work for free and have trained, mentored, and provided emotional support to me in the process.  And no, I’m not some idiot who is unaware of how exploitation works…  first that is very patronizing and rude, and second I am well aware of how exploitation works, but I do not consider it such if it is something I willingly and enthusiastically choose to do.

I do not consider it exploitation if it is something I would quite literally be dead without.

Before I did unpaid internships, I stayed alone in my house, all day every day, suicidal because I feared I could never gain any skills that would allow me to make something (anything) of myself and my life.

A note on volunteering vs unpaid internships:  Some of us who are disabled do have work skills, and enjoy and need challenging work, but do not have such skills as being able to get to work on time every day, clean and professionally-dressed, with a bagged lunch in hand.  I never have a problem with work itself anymore, if it’s something that interests me and I have the qualifications for.  I have trouble, however (a lot of trouble, to the degree that it’s often impossible)…  showering, picking out an outfit in the morning, putting it on, preparing and eating breakfast, brushing my hair and teeth and putting on deoderant, packing a lunch, getting out the door on time, and figuring out what combination of public transit or walking or biking or driving I can and will take to get myself there, without getting lost or injured or traumatized along the way.

Volunteering is great; I enjoy the volunteer work I do.  But I do not usually learn much from it, or am especially challenged by it.  Serving soup at a soup kitchen or cleaning out cages at an animal shelter do not particularly require a lot of specific career skills.  They do not require the kind of skills that, for instance, require the extensive training and mentoring that internships provide.

To be perfectly honest and blunt here…   unpaid internships are the only work-related opportunities I’ve found that are the right combination of challenging and fulfilling but not too much, allowing me to learn and grow while still being capable of them in the first place.

People like me, who can work but only under certain very specific circumstances, already have very limited opportunities and options.  So let’s not take any of them away, ok?

While I do support the existence of unpaid internships (not only for disability but for people who for whatever other reason can’t work or need a stepping stone to get there, such as…  people who’ve had limited opportunities to gain skills more naturally, former prisoners, adult career-changers, immigrants, and elders), I very much support making them more accessible and convenient for more people.

My university requires at least one internship every year for all students.  Most opportunities listed in the database are unpaid.  However, they are also only 5-10 hours/week, during the school semester, when students are still supported by financial aid and loans etc.  They just take one or two fewer classes during an internship semester than they would in a non-internship semester.  This allows them to continue their work-study or off-campus jobs while doing an internship as well.  The majority of students at my university, in my experience, do work anyway, and so the internships are flexible and friendly toward balancing with paid employment and classes.  In my program, the adult learners’ program, many adult learners work full-time during the week and intern for 2-3 hours on Saturday or Sunday afternoons.  It takes them longer than traditional students doing 7 hours/week, but they get there.

Other options for helping low-income or busy people accomplish unpaid internships include:  making all internships as flexible as my university’s (very part-time, evening and weekend hours, flexible scheduling, and options for remote work/work-from-home in fields where this would be possible).  Still more options:  grants, aid, loans, and increasing and expanding federal financial assistance programs such as social security, disability, food stamps, and welfare.  (Many people most in need of internships are also people who would benefit from such assistance anyway).  So long as payment does not come from the organization itself, but rather comes from a philanthropy organization or the government, it would not increase the level of responsibility and expectations as paid internships do.

This is pretty much the opposite of banning unpaid internships entirely, though.  Internships for all!  (Seriously, internships for all…in my experience, so much more learning and growth happens in internships than in any college class I’ve ever taken, or any book I’ve ever read).

Expanding opportunity is possible without eliminating options that are necessary for many marginalized people.


One response »

  1. Pingback: Et tu, Girls Write Now? | Tutus And Tiny Hats

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