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!