My story begins in 1988 when I was 26, single, living in Lexington KY and working as a restaurant manager. I had enjoyed a sunny day in May at a gathering with friends and coworkers in the country and was heading home to the city for plans later that evening. I never made it. Along the way I had an accident, ending with my car flipped over in a ditch, a broken neck, and a spinal cord injury leaving me paralyzed from the shoulders down, unable to move or properly feel my arms, hands, legs or feet since then.
I spent three weeks in ICU in Kentucky until I became stable enough for transport to Shepherd Center in Atlanta GA, a premier spinal cord injury rehabilitation facility. I spent nearly four months there learning about my disability and how I would manage it, including occupational therapy and instructing others on providing my personal care assistance and physical therapy. I also became a client of the State Vocational Rehabilitation Services, the state agency that assists people with disabilities in gaining employment, and underwent extensive testing and evaluation to help determine my skill sets and capabilities, future employment interests and goals, and any training or education needed to obtain them.
After spending a year in Brunswick post discharge from Shepherd Center, I was selected to be one of 15 out of several hundred eligible applicants (adults with disabilities) to attend the Georgia Computer Campus in Atlanta and their ten-month computer programming training program. The goal of the program was to provide attendees with enough skills to compete for entry-level computer programmer positions and obtain employment. We attended the program Monday through Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM to simulate the work environment. We received computer programming and work skills training (resume writing, interviewing, etc.) three days per week with unlimited time in the computer lab. I successfully completed the program in September 1990 and returned to Brunswick.
Ongoing contact with Vocational Rehabilitation Services and my newly obtained computer programming skills enabled me to secure a 700 hour nonpaying internship at FLETC which I began in June 1991, working full-time developing database applications. I was provided with an office, software, an IBM 286 PC, a monochrome monitor with green characters, and an accessible workstation provided by the state with adjustable panels, tabletop, keyboard holder and more. I operated the computer with a mouth stick (literally a stick held in my mouth) which I used to poke the keys on the keyboard, one at a time.
My first assignment was to develop an application to manage FLETC Workmen's Compensation claims. After a relatively brief learning curve, I completed this assignment and several others with glowing reviews from my application users and supervisor. I loved the work and demonstrated I could do it full-time in spite of my disability, and was dismayed as my internship came to a close after four months that there were no job openings or other internships available.
Fortunately, the President at the time implemented an initiative to hire people with disabilities. Every federal agency was allotted one additional FTE for every 500 employees on board. The FTE could be used for any GS position at any grade as long as the person hired had a disability. FLETC was allotted one FTE and it was used to hire me as a GS 5/7 IT Specialist in October 1991. I spent 17 years at FLETC in three IT related positions.
As during my internship, my first IT Specialist position involved computer programming. I developed dozens of database applications for individuals, branches, divisions and the entire Center. This included an early version of Center News, a Schedule Manager for scheduling all FLETC facilities and classrooms, an SF-171 Training Database for requesting, managing and reporting on staff training, the Health Unit Patient Log for managing and reporting on staff and student patient visits (36,000+ annually), and many more. At one point, I had over 40 applications in use.
I later became involved in IT security compliance shortly after Y2K when the government put greater emphasis and scrutiny on the protection of all information systems and the data they contain, working with local FLETC staff and contractors to comply with numerous IT security testing and reporting requirements.
I spent my last five years at FLETC as the IT Project Manager for web-based services including FLETC websites, intranet (a.k.a. FLETCnet), and web-based applications.
Assistive technology (the great equalizer for people with disabilities), reasonable accommodations, and lots of hard work made all of this possible. All of my offices were in accessible buildings with automatic doors that I could operate independently. Several different telephones were purchased to enable and/or improve my ability to answer and make calls independently.
Many are surprised to learn that my hands have never touched a keyboard or mouse. As explained previously, use of a mouth stick was my only means of operating a computer until voice recognition software became practical (usable and affordable) in 1995. I went from typing up to 20 words per minute with a mouth stick, to typing 35-60 words per minute using discrete speech (pausing between each spoken word). Just a few years later, the next generation of voice recognition software enabled typing up to 100 words per minute with 95% or more accuracy using continuous speech!
My coworkers were permitted to assist me with a drink, a light snack at lunch, and other minor periodic needs on work time so I did not have to rely on outside family or assistance to come on Center each day.
Permission to telecommute became an indispensable accommodation as there were times when I was not ill but could not be in my wheelchair for minor health reasons. Fortunately, all of the IT related positions I held were well suited for telecommuting and I was able to maintain my high level of productivity.
I'm proud of my work at FLETC. After being hired as a GS 5/7 IT Specialist under an affirmative employment program for people with disabilities in October 1991, during the course of my 17 years I received an outstanding performance appraisal, competitive promotion, or both each year finishing as a GS 13 IT Project Manager. I share this not to boast but to demonstrate that someone
with a significant disability can not only work jobs of this nature, they can compete and excel in the workplace with the proper skills, tools, motivation, hard work and support.
I owe much of my success to the unwavering support of direct supervisors including Joyce Toler, Jeff Rowland, and Gary Mode, and upper management including Odell Eller, Lewis Gaston, John Sipe, Ray Barnett, and Sandy Peavy. They approved and assisted with every accommodation request I made with proper justification. They never assumed my disability would interfere with any assigned task or project, and they treated me as any other employee, praising and acknowledging noteworthy performance and providing counsel and direction whenever needed.
My advice to managers who are interviewing and/or supervising an employee with a disability is to keep an open mind and do not assume what the individual can or cannot do. It is okay to ask how someone would complete a given task. Regardless, they must be qualified and able to do the job with reasonable accommodations if needed. Expect the same standards and performance as you would of any other employee. Be informed on disability etiquette and any applicable interviewing limitations or restrictions.
My advice to prospective employees with disabilities is to be prepared. Know and obtain the skill sets needed to do the job and clearly articulate any reasonable accommodations needed. Research your prospective employer and any applicable rights or benefits. Consider internships if available to demonstrate you can do the job. Focus on your strengths, not any weakness. Do not expect any favors or special treatment. Most of all, be confident in your abilities and know that you can achieve as much as anyone in the workplace if given the opportunity.
I remain active since opting for an early retirement from FLETC in 2008. I am in the 4th year of two Executive Appointments by Gov. Deal, one serving on the Statewide Independent Living Council (SILC) of Georgia as Board President, the other serving as the SILC representative on the Georgia State Rehabilitation Council. The latter Council is the federally mandated review and advisory Council for the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, which means I am now helping to monitor and advise the organization that was instrumental in helping me gain the skills and the job opportunity resulting in my successful employment at FLETC. I also serve on four mostly disability related nonprofit boards of directors and maintain 10 websites for various nonprofit organizations.
I am grateful to FLETC Chief Information Officer Michael Vesta for giving me the opportunity to share my story as part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This year's NDEAM theme is "Inclusion Drives Innovation." This certainly reflects my experience while working at FLETC, whether it be through the assistive technology I used, the work I produced, or the numerous collaborations with coworkers and FLETC partners and customers on and off Center. People with disabilities have valuable skills and talents and are ready, willing and able to work. Their inclusion makes good business sense for all.
Please know that people with disabilities are individuals with families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and problems and joys. While the disability is an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them. Don't make them into disability heroes or victims. Simply treat them as individuals.
I leave you with my favorite quote by Winston Churchill: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."