Sunday, July 22, 2018

Ability Now!

I'm admittedly plagiarizing myself here, because this post is something I wrote for my work blog, which in turn partially plagiarized something I'd previously written here. So, sorry for the redundancy. It just felt important to reiterate.

Since joining the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) team in 2016, the Employee Resource Group (ERG) I lead at work has taken many forms:
  • Feeling that building a community of employees working with disabilities would be an important internal support system, we began as the Disabled Employees Network. That's still one of our goals; but once D&I recruitment began, we saw remarkable support from disability allies as well as caregivers to family members, not just employees with disabilities. Given the nature of our business (i.e. disability insurance), that shouldn't have been all that surprising;
  • So, in 2017 we became the more-inclusive Disability ERG. This name allowed us to pursue support of our disabled population and caregivers, as well as the education of Unum's broader employee population and exploration of how best to use our personal perspectives with disability to influence how we serve our customers;
  • After attending several conferences with other companies' ERG leaders, I noticed a pattern in their groups' names and agreed that we'd also benefit from accentuating the positive. We have therefore now become The Ability ERG.
Of course, we can't escape the term "disability", as it is engrained in our industry and our culture. Unfortunately, it is also a loaded term, often stigmatized and conjoined with inability, unwillingness, and entitlement. The fact that we've moved as a society from handicapped to disabled still betrays a bias that patronizes those outside the able-bodied norm as being disadvantaged. The other side of the coin tends to grasp onto somewhat saccharin euphemisms like handi-capable.

I personally embrace the term disabled, because it accurately and literally describes a switch that was turned off in my brain when I had a stroke. I can understand why people with congenital impairments (i.e. they've only known life their way) would not identify with or even be insulted by the notion of disability, since it assumes they are lacking something essential. I can see why they would prefer a term like differently abled or no qualifier at all. Why do we need labels to describe everyone? What's so scary about not fitting into tidy packages?

The last eight years of my life -- learning to live in my new form -- has been humbling to be sure but not degrading. If anything, I feel more empowered by my disability than I ever felt pre-injury. I feel empowered to become differently abled.

That's not meant to be motivational or inspirational claptrap. For one thing, I think inspiration comes from within. I don't know much, but what I can tell you I've learned from becoming disabled is that I'm capable of much more than I ever imagined or gave myself credit for. I just hadn't been tested enough to prove it. Interestingly, my department recently performed a D&I exercise to see who'd been born with the most advantages in life; and I "won" (white, upper middle class, Ivy League-educated man that I am). I'll freely admit that I was dealt a pretty good hand. In some ways, that privilege could have left me ill prepared to handle my recent challenges. But it's not just the cards in your hand; it's how you play them. I may have started with four aces, but it's The Joker that won the pot.

Jokers are wild.

To recognize our latest rebranding, this week we held our first annual Ability Night. This year was a wheelchair rugby exhibition, pitting an experienced team of quadriplegic players against a visibly able bodied team of company employees. The general goal was to highlight the capabilities of accomplished athletes who just happen to be in wheelchairs.

By losing quite definitively, the able bodied team also helped demonstrate how living with a disability is very much a honed skill, not a disadvantage.