Sunday, March 17, 2013

Looking for the disabled social butterfly

As I usually do on Sunday mornings, last week I was watching the CBS Face the Nation television show as I sipped my coffee. Bob Schieffer's guest was Mayor Bloomberg of New York City and the Mayor was commenting on the recent sequester issue facing the federal government.

Mayor Bloomberg believed that President Obama should meet with all members of Congress, in fact, he said that the President should meet with as many people he can, whether he's playing golf, having dinner, or lunch with members of both sides of the House and Senate.

The Mayor concluded by saying that being “social” at work is key to advancing different types of issues, business or political, as well as one’s career. When people meet socially, he said, people get to know you better and have the opportunity to trust you more than they usually would if not for the opportunity.

So, how “social” can you be with a disability?
As I look back on my 37-year career with IBM, 32 of which I spent as a disabled employee, I believe that not being “social enough” was one of the reasons why I couldn't advance as fast or as far as I wanted to, both in life and at work.

As much as I tried, I found it difficult to be social, based on my physical limitations, my daily window of being active, mostly between 6 am and 9 pm, and I found it took extra effort to be more social, even when I was motivated to do so.

I think not being social enough is one of the major barriers people with disabilities face in our society today or in any global community. Like everyone else, we can also be shy and inhibited—in addition to being disabled. On the other hand, we can also be outgoing, and extroverted - - but the disability presents limits for any number of reasons.

Is someone at fault?
I don’t think anybody is at fault, nor can I place blame. Most residences and public places are not easily accessible, so accepting invitations from friends is difficult. In fact, my wife Maggie and I, tend to host more social gatherings at our home more often than we visit the homes of friends and relatives. During the summer weather the temperature may be just too hot and uncomfortable for me to bear the outdoors any length of time before I overheat, due to my spinal cord injury. My damaged spinal cord prevents me from sweating and cooling my body normally.

Not being social enough at work means some colleagues really don't get to know me as well as I would like--although I’m sure there are some who don’t care to know me at all!
But when a person is limited socially, you know what happens, other limits follow, such as not being able to participate in public or private events, not being considered for key job assignments, promotional opportunities don’t materialize, and personal relationships suffer - - both romantic and friendships.  

For those of you fortunate enough to be working in today’s economic climate, a disability can inhibit career advancement in ways that are subtle. Some examples include the way a person has to actually eat lunch, take a drink, or even have appropriate access to a meeting room or restroom. What is not entirely clear to able-bodied people is that the disabled have to find ways to do all these things differently. We may look awkward by eating lunch, yet we eat. We may not be able to open the door to a meeting room, yet we meet. We may not be considered leaders, based on our looks, yet we lead.

And, despite our best efforts, society still judges us, in part, by how we look. Women have continuously faced this issue in the workplace. Here’s a stereotype to consider when comparing the leadership abilities of men and women: When a man pounds the table for emphasis he is seen as a leader. When a woman pounds the table she's a brat—[this is the cleaned up version]. Both illustrations are far from the truth.

Disability maximizes my flaws, and leads others to question my social skills. Can I be a leader? Can I be a good father and a husband? Can I be a strategic thinker?  These questions, under normal circumstances, may not be raised as readily as they are with the disabled. When I have expressed disappointment or have been angry at someone or something that has gone wrong at work or home, for example, I have received feedback that perhaps my disability made me moody or I had a bad day because of my injury.

Here’s a news flash. My disability had nothing to do with my disappointment. I was not pleased because either the person did something wrong or I disagreed with the decision made. Too often, people will tend to doubt a person’s judgment based on their disability rather than their intellect, experience or expertise.

Light at the end of the tunnel
Don’t despair. There are disabled folks who are very social and extremely outgoing - - actually amazing. They travel, are intelligent and can light up the room with their charm and grace. I’ll let you read about Deb Dagit, in a recent interview with the Employer Assistance & Resource Network; John Kemp, of the Henry Viscardi School; and Kevin Mcguire, and his new AbleRoad website and be amazed for yourselves. The common thread these individuals share is that they find ways not to be limited socially and are engaged fully in society. I have personally seen how each of them can work a room and make each person they engage with feel welcomed and valued. Disabled social butterflies learn to overcome barriers one experience at a time.

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