I was very blessed that I owned a business at the time I had a stroke more than twenty years ago. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was new legislation at the time, and there weren’t many disabled people in the workforce.
The prospect of returning to my company was a strong motivator in my recovery. When therapy was difficult and exhausting, I pushed myself so I could get out of the rehab center and return to work.
My desire to be a functioning member of society was not unusual. I think most handicapped persons want to contribute, and many are able to make great contributions. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and I hope employers and other workers will recognize the importance of making “reasonable accommodation” (as required by ADA) to help those with disabilities perform their jobs.
One day not long after I returned to work after the stroke, I visited a client in her office. My interior landscaping company maintained the plants in the lobby of the building she managed. I visited some clients each month to ensure their plants were receiving proper care and to make certain the client was happy with the plant care. After the meeting, I couldn’t leave on my own. The configuration of the office didn’t allow enough room for me to position my motorized scooter to be able to reach the door handle. I had to ask the client to open the door for me.
As she held the door for me, my client said, “I would never go out in public if I had to use one of those things.” She motioned to the scooter.
“Do you think I should stay out of public just because I need help walking?” I asked.
“I meant it as a compliment,” my client said. “I wouldn’t be strong enough to handle what you go through.”
“First,” I answered, “you can’t know now how you would react if you were in this situation. You might surprise yourself and realize, as I have, that whatever challenges we face, we each have a choice when we wake up in the morning. We can’t choose our challenges, but we can choose what we do in response. I can lay in bed, feeling sorry for myself, or I can get up and go to work, using this assistive device, as the medical community describes scooters, canes, and other things that help disabled individuals to function.”
“Well, I don’t think I’d be that strong,” the lady said. “I admire you.”
“You use an assistive device to work,” I answered.
She looked at me in surprise and looked down as if to see if she had suddenly ended up in a wheelchair.
I continued, “You wear glasses; obviously you have a vision disability.”
“That’s a lot different from being in a wheelchair.”
“Different only in degree, not in kind,” I said. “You need glasses but someone else whose vision impairment is more severe than yours may need a voice-operated computer because they can’t see the screen.”
She wasn’t easily convinced, but after a little more discussion, she understood my point: Qualified workers come in all sizes, shapes, races, ethnicities, and abilities/disabilities. We’ve all heard stories of brave soldiers who return to battle after severe injuries.
If a double amputee can fight in a war, surely a lady in a wheelchair can sit at a desk and perform a job. A young man who is deaf can work in a position that doesn’t require talking to customers. An adult with Down syndrome, a woman who uses a walker, a man with only one arm, a person who requires oxygen—all have obvious handicaps, but they also have talents and abilities. By focusing on their strengths and abilities and making accommodation for their disabilities (an office door wide enough for a wheelchair, a place to plug in an oxygen machine and space for it to sit, elimination of a specific task such as occasionally lifting heavy boxes from the job description), employers will find that disabled workers can be among their best and most productive employees.
Employers, instead of looking at the assistive device or the disability, look at the individual. Don’t judge him by the wheelchair or the oxygen machine or the Down syndrome facial features. Instead, judge her by the work she can do and the contributions she can make to your business.
Don’t reject an employee or coworker because of a disability; accept that person for his or her abilities.
Have you had any experience with disability employment–as a disabled worker, as an employer, or as coworker?