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Adapting to Your Sudden Disability

Imagine you were about to start a new job when an accident took away your eyesight or you were diagnosed with a degenerative disease that you knew would eventually mean you had to use a wheelchair. How would you cope?

Employers have made progress in hiring workers with disabilities, but when it comes to accommodating and retraining workers with acquired or sudden disability, there is room for improvement.

So says Ron Kozberg, executive vice president of Lift Inc., a nonprofit organization that qualifies, trains, hires and places information technology professionals with physical disabilities throughout the United States.

Sudden Disability Means Sudden Career Change

Erica, who, like others interviewed for this story, requested her last name not be used, was in the telecommunications field when an automobile accident left her a paraplegic. She worked with Lift representatives and was retrained to work in IT security.

Bill was a software developer who became hearing-impaired. He worked with Lift officials to retrain and became a member of the IT team for an insurance company.

What's the Lesson Here?

"Give these people a chance; don't just write them off," Kozberg says. "The person is still the same; the physical capabilities have just changed. The fact these people are still great workers didn't change."

Todd Francois of Milwaukee is so traumatized by the pain in his body from a rare nerve condition that it makes it impossible for him to work. He had to quit his job in the insurance industry and is now going to school online and would like to pursue a career in journalism.

"My pain is so terrible I can barely hold my hands in front of me and type for periods of time," says Francois. "But I think with adapted equipment I could pursue a career as a writer."

Studies by the Job Accommodation Network, a service of the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the US Department of Labor, have shown that there is no cost associated with 15 percent of accommodations, and 51 percent of accommodations cost less than $500.

"Technology and accommodations play a big role with this population," says Bill Kiernan, director of the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. The ICI is a national center for services, information and research.

Not an Easy Transition

"There is a whole series of stages when dealing with this," Kozberg says. "Acceptance of a disability is the hardest part, and the grieving process can be long, frustrating, sad -- the whole range of emotions. But the bottom line is companies just want good employees. You need to present yourself as a strong, loyal employee that is just there to do a job."

Kozberg says one of the hardest parts of acceptance is getting retrained for a new job or career in an entirely new field.

To start his job as a teleservices representative, Brian worked with ICI's WorkTech Solutions program, went through training and received assistance from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and an employment counselor at ICI. Brian explained that at first, using assistive technology felt more like a reminder that he was losing his vision than as a way to help gain employment.

"When I started my job, one of the most frustrating elements for me was being taught by people who probably weren't around people with visual impairments on a daily basis," he says. "Everybody got a little frustrated and stressed at times. We learned how to work with each other and how to work the issues out."

Tips on How to Adapt

Brian recommends these strategies to help you pinpoint a new career path:

  • Use Transferable Skills: For example, the ability to communicate well, train others or conduct research can be used in a variety of settings and positions.

  • Explore: Go on informational interviews and join networking groups to find out what opportunities might be available.

  • Get Help: Agencies that specialize in employment services for job seekers with disabilities can offer support as you decide what career path to pursue. Your state's office of disability employment or equivalent entity is a good place to start.

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