We all live in an ability age; an information age of driven by data and the knowledge gained by skilled people with highly competitive abilities. It almost sounds like something from a superhero story, but it is our reality as it represents the world we live and work within. Almost none of the high-tech jobs today require any type of strenuous activity or feats of strength — So why should any skilled person with a disability be seen as being any ‘less’ able or ‘less’ qualified?
Amazingly, we’re still stung by the sight of a wheelchair or cane or someone that looks different than us due to a disability. Where is Professor Xavier when we need him most?
I broke my neck in high school in 1993 and have been a quadriplegic ever since. I cannot walk, I am paralyzed from the chest down and cannot use my hands not to mention experiencing a host of internal issues I will not get into here. It sounds horrible, but amazingly, I have an awesome life that is pretty much like your life.
So why did I write this piece?
I wrote it to expose a set of skills many people with severe disabilities already know about. Since these skills relate directly to one’s ability to perform well on the job, I chose to publish this to increase awareness and hopefully help reduce the high rate of unemployment among people with disabilities.
Hiring managers need to be aware; employers need to be aware; you need to be aware.
I remember laying in my hospital bed in my new life after being given the news about my new disability and thinking hard about the way forward. If a new Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) could give me one good thing — it was time to think. I could no longer walk, could no longer feed myself, couldn’t write, couldn’t socialize, couldn’t be alone, couldn’t just about everything; I was lost in my new world with little to no direction home.
Soon after a SCI, you enter a phase called acute rehab; this is where you learn to ‘be paralyzed’ and acquire the skills needed to literally survive. Forget thriving or even enjoying life, I had to survive living with my injury first. In acute rehab, medical personnel for both the mind and body are called in to create a plan of success for patients as many hard truths are learned about one’s future…and I remember thinking about my future back then.
Would I have a family? Would I have a career? Would I ever be ‘normal’ again? Hard questions for a 17-year-old kid to ponder, but being thrown into adulthood is never easy.
I’ll get to the point for you as this isn’t a piece about my recovery, but rather it is about my discovery.
Soon after being released back into the world, I began to realize that I had to look at things in a much different way than I ever had done prior. Simple things like getting things off of the floor (or not dropping them in the first place), answering the phone and even brushing my teeth forced me into thinking about problems in a much different perspective than I had prior to my injury. I had to redesign how I now approached everyday tasks because my prior abilities were no longer present and previous affordances were now negligible. Everyday products were now hard to use in the manner they were designed for because they weren’t designed for my new abilities. So I had to create new ones.
As it turns out, the solutions I was creating were somewhat even better than those used by my previous ‘normal’ processes and I began to see somewhat of a pattern evolving about two years after my injury. I began to understand and respect that my daily life was filled with small physical opportunities to solve sometimes difficult problems. My life was no longer filled with relaxation or even extracurricular activities, but rather daily design struggles that needed solutions.
Everything and every task I did daily required some type of thought or calculation to ensure success; there was no longer any autopilot to accomplish the things I once took for granted and this was making me very good at creative problem-solving.
I saw the same thing later in engineering school; my design approach was ‘out-of-the-box’ different in most cases and even though I was still learning, my thirst for problems and complexity was increasing.
It didn’t take me long to respect and accept that my disability had provided the ability to become a relatively decent engineer and excellent and unique problem solver; I simply wouldn’t have acquired the same skills otherwise.
Another virtue I had to pursue was sheer patience. It would seem that simple, small things now took me ages to complete and frustration soon turned into new willpower designated to figuring out better ways to optimize my old, normal processes. Why not take advantage of the situation since I had to learn to do everything again anyway? My patience fueled my problem solving and my problem solving served as a catalyst for learning new things; satisfaction felt good and failures soon became new became opportunities. None of this would have happened were it not for my disability and it has had an extreme impact on my life thus far. I went on to successfully raise a family, obtain three engineering degrees, teach at three major universities while holding down a successful industry career as an engineer. All done from a wheelchair, with no hand usage, no balance or muscle usage below the chest, but with a ton of motivation and family support and with the skills my disability has provided.
Lastly, my disability taught me to not give up on people just because they saw me as different. In acute rehab we (the other SCI patients on my floor and I) were taken to various public places and marched around in a group to expose us to ‘public reintegration’ where people looked, stared and even made fun of us — this exposed a cruel world (30 years ago) we were all readying to become a part of once again. I remember it being one of the most difficult mental things I had been through up to that point in my life and not being able to do anything about it.
I soon accepted it is basic human nature to find the differences in things; it is how we then proceed after doing so that makes the biggest difference in who we really are.
We can choose to focus on the differences in a positive or negative way or better yet, we can learn how to best use these differences and work together to create something cool and different and useful.
So, where am I going with all of this?
As I grew older with my disability I met more people just like me and quickly became aware that most, if not all, had acquired many of these same skills from their disabilities and experiences. It would seem as though each and every person had their own set of problems to solve and had designed cool and awesome ways to solve them. Most also possessed the Patience of Job and had tremendous teamwork mentalities; all of these things came from their disabilities and many of these same skills are very difficult for people to naturally acquire or even learn to acquire.
Another interesting aspect I began to uncover was, even though many weren’t working, they had somehow created leadership type roles for themselves within their own communities leading all sorts of efforts from awareness to activism and many were making huge differences in people’s lives without any type compensation.
Can you imagine that same type of effort, leadership and compassion within your own workplace?
So, now you have some background — lets examine the purpose of this piece.
As you well know all of these skills translate well to engineering or programming or design or business as well as many other areas, so why is unemployment so high among this demographic?
1. Hiring practices
When I first graduated from college (undergrad), I cannot convey the high number of interviews I went on and job offers I accepted during the same interviews only to be called later and informed otherwise. From inaccessible bathrooms to fearful attorneys — the reasons always varied, but yet the burden always fell on my being in a wheelchair and never on my skills or education. I kept my chin up, was patient, and persistence paid off, but the process was not short of anxiety and frustration and this was almost thirty years ago.
Ask yourselves this: Has anything really changed?
2. Fear of losing benefits
Many are terrified of losing their medical benefits if they return to work; this fear has to be put to rest and it can be done through the help of employers by hiring more people with disabilities and by supporting more inclusive hiring practices. It is a very simple concept able-bodied people live with too — where do I get health coverage if I lose my job? This fear is exponential when you need expensive medical coverage to literally survive and solving number 1 above will help alleviate much of the fear surrounding returning to work. If jobs are easier to get, more people with severe disabilities will try to return to work and this benefits everyone.
3. Lack of remote work/lack of transportation
I find it ridiculous that we can stream movies, talk to physicians and our loved ones online and even live stream personal events that we want to share with the world, but yet we cannot use the same technology to allow someone that wants to work to do so from home. Transportation is often a barrier for people with disabilities even in major cities and tons of studies have shown that productivity is actually higher among remote employees and we need more employers to support such practices, even in this post-Covid world where remote work is much more prevalent than before. We still have more work to do to make it the a best practice.
These three areas aren’t specific to all individuals with disabilities, but many share some of each and solving or helping to resolve any of these issues will benefit everyone and not just people with disabilities.
We’ve made progress and the American’s with Disabilities Act has helped to raise awareness, but we still have a very long way to go. Hopefully, my ramblings have helped provide a little insight on the abilities our disabilities have given us and maybe, perhaps, I have even opened your eyes to the very possibility of hiring someone with a severe disability.
Trust me, they won’t let you down — they’ve already been there.