The Disability Advantage

Two weeks ago, I attended a seminar hosted by a local professional group for women in development. The speaker challenged those of us in the room to consider our personal reputation, or brand. Specifically, she spoke about the importance of building, protecting and repairing our reputation as individuals and also as representatives of the non-profit organizations that employ us.

I have attended other workshops and seminars where participants were encouraged to define, curate and protect their personal brand. Usually when I sit in these sessions my mind starts to wander. I start to question how much of my “brand” is influenced by my passions and beliefs, as opposed to the skills I have developed in response to living with a disability. Many of the qualities which strengthen my personal “brand” have been honed by living with a disability.

For example, I am a creative problem solver. When faced with an obstacle or barrier, I am able to quickly scan any available resources and devise a plan of action. This comes from decades of needing to locate wheelchair accessible entrances and paths, hundreds of nights spent in inaccessible hotel rooms or friend’s houses, and eighteen years of living as a wheelchair user without any roommates.

No curb cut at the corner? I start searching for the closest driveway or backtrack to find a way off the sidewalk. My wheelchair doesn’t fit through the hotel room’s bathroom door? I measure the desk chair (they’re usually on wheels) to see if it will fit. Sure, it’s an extra transfer but at least I will be able to pee without having to go downstairs to the accessible public restroom or fitness center in my pajamas every morning. I mean, I have done that when necessary. When you gotta go, you gotta go.

My disability has also given me good executive functioning skills. These are the skills required to plan, focus, remember and multi-task. When you live with a mobility disability, you are constantly using executive functioning skills – at least I am. I plot out my fluid intake for the entire day before I even get up in the morning. How much I consume is based on when I have Personal Assistant (PA) staff scheduled to help me use the bathroom, and what other tasks I need them to complete. I select my clothes with several factors in mind – the weather, where I will be going, who will be working, and how much time is available to use the bathroom. Of course, this assumes I will have staff to help me use a bathroom which suits my needs. If I do not have a PA or if I cannot use an available bathroom, then the plan will change.

Pee math – the ratio of fluid intake over length of time – is one of the most crucial planning tasks I perform every day, but definitely not the only one. I organize my life based on the PA staff scheduled to work for me. I prefer to have certain PAs perform specific tasks, and some PAs have stronger skill sets in differing areas. Therese, who is wonderful with shopping and laundry, is unable to help me shower. Margaret hates clutter and likes to clean. When she works, I know my linen closet will look very organized by the end of her shift even if I haven’t asked her to do it. Some PAs make excellent travel companions, and there are some I would never ask to accompany me on a trip.

Of course I bring these executive functioning skills with me to my paid employment where they become part of my personal “brand.” I am viewed as a leader by my peers because of my ability to build consensus, juggle multiple tasks and think creatively. Still, I wonder – would I have developed these abilities if they were not required due to life with a disability? Would I seek new ways to approach problems or would I go with the status quo? Would I anticipate and devise contingency plans for every possibility if my disability had not made this a part of everyday life?

My disability, the one thing strangers often assume must be a negative factor in my life, has provided wonderful opportunities to gain crucial skills which make me successful in navigating a world not designed for my needs. These advantages have served me well in my professional and volunteer roles, and are an integral part of my identity and personal “brand.” It has been easy to transfer my life experiences into professional opportunities to further the mission of my employer. I am a stronger employee because of the lessons learned from disability.

What unique life experiences have shaped your personal “brand?” How have you taken life lessons and used them to further your career? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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22 thoughts on “The Disability Advantage

  1. Disability has also taught me empathy, and to consider the perspectives of others. I’m constantly explaining my reality to people who have no context, and that makes me acutely aware of how each person’s experiences and background affect their understanding of a situation.

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  2. My former co worker Karen Rappleyea was at this function. Said she saw you and next time will try and track you down

    Sent from my iPhone

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  3. I’m sure any parent of more than 1 child also has this skill of problem solving, organizing, doing 2 things @ once, etc, but probably doesn’t get the credit for those life skills

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  4. I think I was a good teacher because of my experiences with working with the mentally disabled (my foster brother and coaching swimmers in Special Olympics). I developed empathy when I became a mom. My hearing impairment helped me develop awareness of students’ needs in the classroom.

    Your resume must totally rock. You make the most out of your situation to make things work for you in a world that absolutely was not designed to meet your needs.

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    • I’m sure your experiences helped you in the classroom. As Rose said in her comments, empathy is such an important skill and I’m glad she brought it up since I forgot to mention it.

      When I was hired for my current job, the HR Director told me she was impressed with my CV. One of the best “habits” I have (courtesy of five years in a job for which was not great for me) is I update it at least twice a year. I believe every woman needs to have an updated version ready to go, at a moments notice. Now, whenever I have an update (publish something, speak somewhere, new job duty or accomplishment) I take the time to add it then and there. If anyone asks for an updated version, it is ready to go.

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  5. Since I work with people who have varying degrees of disability and different responses to their particular disability, I suggest that your natural passions have manifested themselves to assist you as you’ve developed these life strategies.

    Also, having worked for years with one client, in particular, who needs 24/7 PAs or personal chaperones, I know exactly what you mean aboit different PAs having different strengths and weaknesses.

    Denise, you are such a tower of strength and a remarkable role model.

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    • It could be a mixture of both passion and experience. Thank you for your kind words. I don’t think of myself as a role model, but that may be due to my inner perfectionist which sees all my shortcomings. I’m tougher on myself than anyone else.

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  6. I found this a fascinating read, actually. Most of the time, I don’t think of you as disabled–in part because you are so accomplished and capable. My friend Nora is much the same way. Your question is a good one. For me, I think my personal brand includes being able to get a lot done in a relatively short amount of time. This, I think, is because my available hours formula is much like your pee math. There are only so many good hours in a day where I will be able to focus, before health issues have gotten in the way and the energy simply isn’t there. As a result, I have learned to focus well in the mornings, and if I am focused, the list can be burned down fairly quickly. I learned last year though, I would need a lot more practice before I could be any good at pee math!

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  7. I’m not sure what personal experiences fueled it, but I know I’m good at helping people. With identifying their needed details and being able to help them refocus on a bigger picture. (When it comes to my *own* details, well, let’s just say my linen closet, along with the rest of my storage areas, will never be as tidy as yours!) I know being a parent and a military spouse both have helped me hone my helping skills, but your post has encouraged me to do some more self-research to narrow down my brand.

    Thank you for the reminder that others’ opinions of what must be a hardship for me isn’t important. It’s what I choose to do with it and how I choose to view it that counts!

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  8. I loved this post – fascinating and inspiring. As for my personal brand… do I have one? Like Ros, non-morning-person-ness (LOL). Sense of the absurd and grotesque. Need to think about this.

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  9. Dee, wonderful post. My younger sister is a PWD and she reminds me everyday to be better than I was the day before. She has never been defined by the different ability she has, and like you she just keeps going forward. Powerful words, thanks for the inspiration.

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