Seeing My Ability Not My Disability In The Workplace

In Mind, Body & Spirit, Pushing Forward by Empish Thomas

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the perfect opportunity to learn about the abilities of the disabled in the workplace. As a disabled person I applaud the efforts made to educate our society, dispel the myths and stereotypes and highlight the achievements of the working disabled.

I am a proud part of that group but it has not been an easy journey. My employment travels have led me not only to a job but to a satisfying career as a writer and disability advocate.

I was not introduced to the disabled community until I went blind about six years ago. I was steadily working before, during and after I lost my sight and was naive to the challenges that the disabled were having in finding employment.

I heard constant complaints about the challenges of employment, but was very fortunate to have an understanding employer who saw my ability not my disability.

In 1996 I was going blind but despite that a temporary assignment I was on became permanent. I was so grateful because I needed the income and medical insurance. At the company, I worked in a department that had a positive and supportive atmosphere. We all got along very well and had a daily ritual of listening to the Tom Joyner Morning Show while sipping our cups of coffee.

This was very comforting to me since I was away from home and had few friends. Nevertheless, my vision steadily got worse and I knew that total blindness was inevitable. When I approached my supervisor about this, she was very understanding and supportive. She gave me a year off to go through rehabilitation so that I could maintain my independence. She told me that she would put me on medical leave where I could receive a disability check and medical coverage.

I gave an inward sigh of relief because I knew that she was not obligated to keep me employed since I was not fully able to work. I discovered that not only was my supervisor supportive but also the entire staff. Everyone cheered me on and wanted me to come back to work after my training. I was deeply moved by this and so thankful that I had people in my life that saw my ability not my disability.

By the next year, I had completed my rehabilitation and was excited about returning back to work. Everyone was happy to see me. My supervisor again showed her support and helped purchase some of my adaptive equipment that I needed to complete my job. She also changed some of my work responsibilities and the staff helped with job sharing duties.

Before losing my sight, I use to process benefit enrollment and insurance forms for new hires in the human resource department. Once I returned to work I could no longer perform those tasks because I needed sight to read the forms. So my supervisor gave that responsibility to co-workers.

In exchange I manned the1-800 customer service phone line and responded to e-mail messages. The arrangement worked well for everyone. Since I had been in the department the longest I knew a lot of the information and could answer questions and concerns confidently and accurately.

Additionally, my co-workers gave me rides to the bus stop or train station after work because it was too dangerous to cross the street. I was fortunate to have compassionate and supportive people in my life that helped me to maintain my confidence and motivation. They were able to look beyond my physical limitations to see that I was fully capable.

Years have past since then, but I still use that positive example when I have been angry or depressed about my disability. Using this and other experiences caused me to become a disability advocate and writer.

In order to promote change and understanding we must get out of our comfort zones and integrate areas of our society where we are not fully seen, particularly the workforce.

Observing National Disability Employment Awareness Month is so critical. People need to know that a disabled person has a lot to offer and can add value to a work environment. I want people to see my ability not my disability.

Do you think we have reason to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month? Let us know what you think.

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