If I had to select one word which describes what it’s like to grow up with a lifelong disability, it would be “fear.”
As a child, I feared being left by my parents with others -- even with a familiar baby sitter.
I remember the panic I felt one evening when I was left in a church pew alone because my parents temporarily stepped out of the sanctuary.
In grade school, I feared walking down the aisle of any public forum (movie theatre, church, school etc.) because I would picture myself falling in front of the crowd due to my stiff legs and the pitiful stares I would get from onlookers because of my cerebral palsy.
In high school, I clung to the hallway lockers for fear I would be trampled by the bigger, more “normal” students, especially the guys in black leather jackets and ducktails. I also had an aversion to waste-high wastebaskets because one time a fellow student (a hefty farm girl) had to fish me out of one. I had grabbed it for balance and, instead, flew head first (and arms) into the trash.
During college, I settled into a comfortable routine but worried about how I would fare after graduation when I would enter the rough and tumble “real world.” Real-world business people, I thought, would hear my slurred speech and immediately discount my intelligence and training. And, I wouldn’t be able to get a job.
For me, failure, at that point, was not an option. As a young person with a disability, I needed to earn an income to become independent -- to be the first in our family to get a non-farm job. Yet, once on the job, I feared being suffocated in unchallenging work within a “going nowhere” company in a back-water rural area.
But, by the time I became 30 years old, I began to realize some success (and recognition by others) in my work as a corporate communicator. I found that people generally don’t think much about what makes others “different” because they are often preoccupied with their own concerns. And, I learned that organizations, especially my employer, tend to change through one “pocket” at a time instead of top down (even under the leadership of a motivated CEO).
Now that I look back on my career, my “false” fears of failure may have actually crippled my growth.
Attachment theory, the study of the importance of early childhood emotional bonds, suggests that youngsters who have stronger relationships with their parents develop stronger self-esteem and better self-reliance as they grow older and explore the world – even though disability is involved.
Children with a stronger self-esteem tend to be more independent, perform better in school, have successful social relationships, experience less depression and do well in the work world.
Individuals with a disability may have difficulty with the psychological ramifications of living with a visible or invisible vulnerability in a society which often presents a distorted picture of disability.
This may be particularly true when unexplored misconceptions within the family unit about disability impede a healthy connectedness between the youngster and parents.
The result could be an “encumbered” job candidate who does not have the self-esteem, emotional intelligence or interpersonal communication skills to perform well on a job.
We are crippled by false fears when we experience failure in advance of its actually happening (and that failure may never happen), according to Seth Goden, whose book, “Poke the Box,” is a call to action about the initiative you’re taking.
Goden says leaders tend to be more fearless than their followers. Followers, heeding the voices in their heads, tend to believe there is no advantage to failure, and, as a result, are stuck in old behavior patterns. Leaders, on the other hand, understand that learning comes from failure.
“Nobody is successful all the time, and fear is not productive. You need to show up again and again and keep playing the game,” emphasizes Goden, who has had 13 books on the New York Times “Best Seller” list. He says his first book, by the way, was rejected by 900 publishers.
He explains that a person is usually successful 20 percent of the time in any endeavor. “Keep track of your chances,” he recommends. “Your next effort may be the time you’ll be in the 20 percent category.”
I believe that’s good advice for jobseekers. You can’t be sure you’re the right person for an open job if you don’t apply for it.
Goden notes the job market has changed. “There are no more paper-shuffling jobs that pay $150,000 a year,” he says. “Obedient cogs (in the wheel) are being replaced by individuals who are willing to be accountable and to face failure and to take an entrepreneurial approach to work They are innovative and willing to take risks.”
What really resonates with me is Goden’s admonishment to “believe in your ability to shine a light for people and share what you know that is beneficial to others.” The key, he points out, is accumulating ideas, beliefs and information that stand out from the crowd and people find useful.
The work-arounds for fear that I have developed for myself over the years turn out to resemble that charge. I have learned how to be an innovator and a delegator.
As an innovator, I noticed that people within my workplace were often more intrigued by my creativity, even though my ideas may have turned out to be half-baked and not workable at all. At least, they saw that I was thinking -- and thinking in terms of the company’s success. Once the company’s bottom line became the focus, my disability (and my timidity) would disappear.
I found my disability didn’t much matter, if I shifted the focus to innovation. Creativity trumped my disability and deflected any concerns my colleagues may have had about it. And, that made it easier for me.
As I assumed more responsibility and moved into senior management, I also learned how to delegate hands-on work -- especially work that was difficult for me because of my disability.
I started hiring high school students for after-school jobs and then began to offer paid internships for college students. As the organization and my responsibilities grew, I eventually developed a team of five people, each of whom had authority to carry out specific duties (and get the recognition for it).
Over a 28-year span, I hired, trained and developed more than 24 people in the field of corporate communication, public relations and member relations. And, I earned to welcome failure in myself and others because it helped our team grow.
My childhood fear of what could happen (and often doesn’t) because of my disability has gradually disappeared.
Copyright © 2015. Hasse Communication Counseling. All rights reserved.
Jim Hasse (www.jimhasse.com), Global Career Development Facilitator, has compiled and edited the recommendations of HR experts and the personal observations of both jobseekers and hiring managers into Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities (www.perfectlyable.com/), a comprehensive disability recruitment guidebook for hiring managers published by AMACOM (September 2010), the publishing arm of the American Management Association. He’s the founder of www.cerebral-palsy-career-builders.com, a comprehensive career coaching guide for parents of youngsters with cerebral palsy, and owner of Hasse Communication Counseling, LLC, which develops win-win direct mail fundraisers for champions of disability employment.