A Journey Into Disability: Shifting My Own Perceptions

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"Are there any accommodations or needs that we should be aware of that would make it easier for you to succeed in your potential role at Champions?"

I remember this question vividly from when I was interviewed for the position of Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Champions last year. At the time, I literally had no idea what Lori James, our Client Services Manager, was getting at when she asked me this. This was representative of the knowledge which I had about disabilities, inclusion and employment at this time in my life - which was little to none.

Prior to this moment, I had generally been committed to issues and ideas surrounding the concept of social justice, both in my professional and academic lives. I have always been deeply concerned about the various inequalities which exist in the societies we live in, and have embarked on a career path where I aspire to address their root or structural causes. (My friends in the corporate world call this career path the PDG - Professional Do Gooder - but this isn't article about addressing their cynicism) While I had never worked with persons with disabilities, or as a career developer for that matter, applying for a position at Champions Career Centre seemed to fit neatly within the kind of work I wanted to do with my life.

At the time, and immediately after being hired, it seemed so simple. Of course people with a disability deserve an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce! Let's help them get jobs!

About one month into my time at Champions, and after a several week crash course on all things related to diversity and inclusion, I participated in my first all day staff meeting. Which was the first all day staff meeting I had ever attended in an office environment. By the end of the meeting my head was pounding and I was completely disoriented.

Now, I understand that almost everyone has a special place in the dark corners of their heart for an all day staff meeting. I sincerely doubt anyone really looks forward to them, or relishes in their glory as they creep into their seventh and eighth hours. However, what I was feeling wasn't the normal fatigue related to being knee deep in a swamp of minutiae all day long, but were symptoms related to Post-Concussion Syndrome.

Before coming to Champions, there were two realities to my life. I loved to work independently, with most of my work experience involving consulting, research and volunteering in a solo capacity. I also seem to love to hit my head. Over the course of my lifetime I have taken a good half dozen shots to the skull, with the after effects getting worse with each concurrent blow, fall or golf ball. It was only with my last concussion - the aforementioned Titleist -  that I had to see doctors about the change in personality and symptoms I was experiencing in the weeks after the accident. Over time, the post-concussion symptoms subsided, and because I worked independently and at my own pace, I didn't believe there any long term ramifications associated with this injury.

It was scary to see my symptoms return. How do you tell a new boss you're struggling? Is it okay to ask for "special" treatment? What will my co-workers think? What if I can't do this job?

I am sure you can see the irony here. All of these questions are asked at Champions almost daily, both by our clients and by employers who want to tackle these challenges. If there ever was a place where a person could disclose how they are feeling about a barrier they are facing in their job, it is at Champions.

One meeting later, I met with Lisa Moon, my Executive Director, to disclose how I was feeling and come up with strategies to be successful, and my official journey into the world of disability began.

And what a journey it has been.

The great thing about being in Marketing and Communications in the modern world is the concept of engagement. Being good in this role is more about listening than anything else. I am a person who loves to learn - I would have gone to university my whole life, and many people would accuse me of trying - and to be a good "MarComm" person in this age involves listening and learning every day.

For the better part of the last two years I have been able to listen and learn from the amazing team at Champions, from the personal successes and challenges facing our clients, and from the amazing people and resources available online.

"Everyone experiences their disability in a unique way." This is a common phrase when it comes to talking about disabilities. It makes sense at a general level, but being able to experience it at a personal level has completely changed my perspective about the world. The fundamental change I have experienced is a respect and understanding for difference.

Yes, I deal with Post-Concussion Syndrome still to this day. Do I consider it a disability? That is tougher to say. I am not alone in this thinking. There are many people who are hard of hearing or deaf who don't consider themselves as living with a disability. Yet there are many, many others who embrace the term. I have no idea what it is like to live with spina bifida, or to be diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, or to live with fibromyalgia and be in chronic pain. Believe me, the list of what I don't understand in the world of disabilities is a mile long - because that is the range of experiences that exist.

Developing an understanding of this range of experiences, and an appreciation for difference, has resulted in me viewing the world completely differently. One of the first things that comes to mind when I enter a room or building is to wonder how accessible it is. I understand the importance of language when talking about disabilities, both in general and at an individual level. I will never upload or create a video without adding captions, no matter the time required.  

Finally, I have seen the inventiveness, innovation and adaptability that goes hand in hand with living with a disability. Every single person has barriers, whether they live with a disability or not, and there are countless things many of us can't do. For myself, I can't hold a tune, hold focus very long in prolonged conversations, or "demonstrate sensitivity at a personal level" (girlfriend's words). Some of my limitations may be a result of my inability to prevent my head from coming into contact with objects at high speeds, but most of my limitations are just personal barriers I have been dealing with my whole life.

My time at Champions has caused me to de-link the things we "can't do" from disability. Yes, some people face real barriers that relate to their condition. I would never deny this, but I also would never start there. I have seen a wide range of disabilities in my time at Champions, but I have seen an even wider range of abilities, and the realm of possibilities are far beyond what I ever imagined.

As I embark on the next chapter of my career path, and move away from Champions, I would like to express a sincere thank you to everyone on the Champions team, the clients and employers we have worked with, and the greater disability community at large. My life is fuller and more enriched from my time engaging with you.

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