Jazmin Toca, 23, has always had trouble sitting still. She hops from trains to buses on the way to work, reading books in between; she dances to hip-hop, and finds creative expression in her own hair; and in all these things, she is fixated on purpose. Her work, her relationships, her definition of the good life, are all permeated by the desire to contribute with every facet of her being. So then, it is little wonder: Jazmin Toca cannot sit still.
But in a culture which flings its young people towards self-exhaustion, Toca has had to fight to keep moving.
A joyful yet shy young woman, exudes a distinctive, humble quietude. Her smile is diffident, her presence undemanding. To be in conversation with her is analogous to speaking with one’s past elementary school teacher: there are no walls, no barriers, only gentle sincerity. Paired with Toca’s words, however, this exterior betrays an intriguing totality.
“I like dancing; hip-hop,” she says, adjusting her bluish-purple beanie. “And I’m kind of a metalhead.”
Born and raised in the Bay Area, Toca lives in San Bruno but commutes to Palo Alto several days a week. There, she works at Ada’s Café, a welcoming spot next to the Mitchell Park library. She is also a part-time student at the College of San Mateo, passionate about childcare and child development. “I eventually want to work in a school,” she declares, “or a daycare center. Something like that.” Toca understands the demands of such work, but relishes the challenge. Her main obstacle is earning the challenge itself.
For as long as she can remember, Toca has lived with an unspecified learning disability. “My parents never found out what it was,” she explains. “I have trouble reading sometimes, and need to slow down. Sometimes people ask me questions and I have to ask, ‘can you say that again please?’ ” Her disability did not preclude an education, though, and she graduated from Mills High School in 2013. In fact, high school provided many of her dearest memories: “It was really good,” she remembers of the time, “I was trying hard to be a straight-A student, but [high school was really… comforting.” Toca was taking a sizeable course load, balancing special-education classes with courses like History, Biology, and Dance. In addition, she often worked part-time to emulate and support the work ethics of her mother and three sisters, with whom she lived.
She worked mostly in small clothing stores around the neighborhood. During that time, she developed a unique desire to be challenged: “I remember asking my managers for more hours. They said, ‘are you sure it’s not too hard for you?’ and I said not at all. They had no idea someone like me would want to work more.” That industriousness came from a deep paternal empowerment, by a father whom Toca often sees: “My dad always told me to go outside, find a job, find something to keep myself busy. And I did.” But after high school, Toca struggled to find such empowerment from her employers. She worked at large retail and grocery stores, often limited to a narrow range of menial tasks. She sent countless job applications but felt that “there’s not a lot of opportunity” for someone like her. She even spent five months holding signs on Redwood City street corners, in the dizzying summer heat: “I didn’t like that at all,” she recalls, “I quit.”
Neither her disability, nor her struggle, was uncommon. While numbers vary widely, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that up to 15 to 20 percent of Americans are affected by learning disorders (1). A separate group estimated that in 2006, that nearly five-million American K-12 students have been diagnosed with such conditions (2). Obviously, many such students will eventually become working-age adults; and therein lies the impasse, and the rising call against ableism in the workplace. This call has, to some degree, been increasingly heeded: companies like Ernst & Young have implemented programs to recruit people with disabilities; institutions like the Wharton School of Business are studying disabilities in the workplace; and a growing number of activists, many of them disabled, continue to speak out on disability rights (3,4).
Yet if Toca’s plight is largely societal, her self-conception is quite personal. She understands her disability and the challenges it presents; but the totality of Jazmin Toca expands far beyond numbers and labels. When she felt restricted in certain jobs, tension did not arise from a shaken identity, she says. “I just want to be challenged more; I want to learn more; I want to move around, something to do.”
Indeed, much of her life—both professional and personal—hinges upon this theme of seeking challenge. Past employers have looked at Toca “like they don’t want me to do anything,” but as she proclaims, “that’s unacceptable. I mean, I have to do something. I have to.” So much of one’s identity, disabled or not, rests upon meaningful work. And whether employers fear to burden Toca, or feel that she presents a liability, those employers have ignored her sense of place: “I can’t just get paid to stand around—that’s not okay.”
As researchers at Wharton note, negative perceptions have much to do with this corporate condescension—such as the idea that disabled workers will only contribute extra need for supervision (4). Lack of internal support also plays a role, as many companies do not invest sufficient effort in training disabled employees.
Yet Toca has already defied these misconceptions and oversights. She has succeeded scholastically; maintained meaningful relationships; and exceeded employer expectations. Her interest in others, her relentless activity, her pursuit of fulfilling work: these are at the forefront of Toca’s identity, not the challenges presented by her disability. Yes, that disability is very much present; but it is far from the center of her personhood.
When asked, in fact, Toca does not define herself in discrete characteristics at all. She opts instead for a deeper understanding of herself; one sourced from relationships and the insights they bring. She has found strength in this innately-empathetic ontology, amidst past discrimination and bullying: “I just ignore [bullying… A lot of people are doing this because they don’t really know what’s going on in their own lives, or they’re going through something hard.” This perspective helped Toca move past the loneliness she felt as a child with learning disabilities, through the positive-feedback loop of joy and genuine friendship. “When you’re sad, you become even more lonely than you were before,” Toca notes. “But when you’re happy, you connect more with other people.”
Through empathy and activity, Toca has connected with a wide host of people indeed. Today she remains close with her parents and sisters; enjoys time with her boyfriend of several months; and finds valuable mentorship in the Ada’s managers.
All of this, for a quiet and calming woman like Toca, has animated life itself. In the present, Toca is devoted to her studies and work at Ada’s, while spending time with coworkers after hours. In the future, she lucidly envisions an apartment, her own car, and a fulfilling career in childcare.
Her current state, then, is somewhat of a representation—a real-life demonstration of her life’s greatest passions: relationships and meaningful work. It is thus fitting that Toca took to dance: its dynamism and engulfing movements are signposts of sorts, gesturing toward an identity beyond labels. If you did not know her, you would of course be unaware of that identity. You would be clueless that behind such humble sincerity, Jazmin Toca bursts forth with dreams and loves and passions forthcoming. But that is undoubtedly the case. She has wrestled with her disability and felt the insecure projections of bullies; yet all the while, her quiet nature has masked a relentless and purposeful heart.
She is not simple, not helpless, and she is far from complacent. “I have a good life right now,” Toca reminds us. “But I’m always moving on.”
1. Twenty-Ninth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Parts B and C. 2007. https://www2.ed.gov/about/reports/annual/osep/2007/parts-b-c/index.html.
2. Pastor PN, Reuben C a. Diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disability: United States, 2004-2006. Vital Heal Stat. 2008;10(237):1-14.
3. Horowitz J. More people with disabilities are getting jobs. Here’s why. CNN. http://money.cnn.com/2018/01/26/news/economy/jobs-people-with-disabilities/index.html. Published January 26, 2018.
4. Job Discrimination Against the Disabled: Not Just an Academic Issue. http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/job-discrimination-against-the-disabled-not-just-an-academic-issue/. Published 2013.