In 1989, I landed my dream job. I felt as though I’d been preparing for this job all my life. I couldn’t have been happier had I won the lottery. Why? Because, you see, I had beaten the odds.

At the age of seven, I was diagnosed with a progressive neuromuscular disorder. I was told that I would eventually stop walking and that I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. In fact, that is exactly what happened.

Growing up in the 70s, I attended an elementary school in Toronto for physically disabled children. As I matured, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the concept of segregation and eventually I also began to question the label “special education.” I remember asking one of my teachers one day, “Does Special Ed mean that you think I’m dumb?” He seemed surprised by the question and said no, that it was a silly label ascribed to the school strictly because its students were physically disabled. I wasn’t convinced. It wasn’t just a “silly label.” As far as I was concerned, even if my teacher didn’t think I was dumb, some school board official did.

I couldn’t articulate my thoughts at the time, but I came to understand that to me, at that moment so many years ago, I recognized that the term “Special Ed” represented society’s perception of me and my potential as a person with a disability. To me, it suggested:

  1. that society had no expectations of me, that I could and would live an essentially non-productive life free of responsibility; and perhaps worst of all
  2. that that would be acceptable. I felt simultaneously crushed and outraged, disappointed yet motivated.

I now believe that this realization awakened in me a certain drive. It seems as though I changed, perhaps matured, overnight. I became determined to succeed, to debunk the stereotype. I grew up with very hard-working, disciplined parents. I wasn’t afraid of hard work. In fact, I began to dream of my future career—vet, lawyer, teacher, psychiatrist, social worker.

In school, I started to assert myself and to challenge some of the school’s policies. To my surprise and delight, these efforts often resulted in changes that benefited me as well as my peers. I started to view myself as an advocate, and came to enjoy these little battles.

At the age of 14, I took on the long-standing policy that students remain at the school until the age of 16. There didn’t seem to be a valid reason for this blanket policy. I liked the school, but I felt ready to move on. Fairly new to Canada at the time, my parents wouldn’t dream of challenging the school’s authority; but with the support of a teacher who’d taken a special interest in me, I was able to convince the powers that be that I was ready despite being “only” 14.

By the time I entered high school in the late 70s, I was using a power wheelchair full-time and I required assistance with most physical tasks. I had the same problems as any other teen, only I had the added pressure of being disabled. For me, that meant constant worry about keeping up with note-taking, not being able to raise my hand in class, getting to class, carrying my school bag, setting up my desk, getting my books out of my bag and onto the desk, library research, participating in school trips, etc. At times, I asked for and got accommodations—classes on the same floor, a note-taker, and extra time for tests and exams.

In the early 80s, I entered the Social Work program at Ryerson. During that four-year period, I faced the same day-to-day physical challenges as I did in high school. By this time, Ryerson had a Student Services Dept. that might’ve been able to help ease my stress. But two things prevented me from reaching out:

  1. I was reluctant to admit I needed help; and
  2. I truly believed that my needs were so great that they couldn’t possibly be accommodated. So I carried on, sometimes just barely managing.

In my fourth and final year at Ryerson, I became overwhelmed with the academic demands of the program and the constant state of anxiety I was in. I knew if I didn’t ask for help, I probably wouldn’t graduate with my class. I finally gave in. I went to the Student Services Dept. and made arrangements for someone to help me in the library. That made a big difference.

I graduated from Ryerson in 1987 with my class. At that time, the graduation ceremony was held at Massey Hall. A few days before, I was told that Massey Hall was not wheelchair accessible. I was asked to attend in a manual wheelchair rather than my own power wheelchair. I didn’t like the idea of being pushed by someone so I refused. I said, “I earned my degree on my own, and I will go up and get my degree on my own.” I never heard another word about the manual wheelchair. I went to my graduation ceremony in my own chair and went up to get my degree in my own chair. That was a proud moment for me and my family.

I was anxious to start my career. My first job search lasted a long and difficult 11 months. I attended several interviews, some just for the experience. Early in my search, I applied for a Vocational Rehabilitation Counsellor position at Goodwill Toronto (a Vocational Rehab Counsellor helps people with disabilities prepare for, secure, and maintain employment).

I got an interview. The manager who contacted me, a woman by the name of Ruth, had no idea I had a disability. After agreeing on a date and time for the interview, I told her I needed to make Wheel-Trans arrangements and asked about the wheelchair entrance at Goodwill. Without skipping a beat, Ruth gave me the information and said she would have someone meet me at that location on the day of the interview to escort me to the Rehab Dept.

I came out of that interview convinced that that was the perfect job, and Goodwill the perfect setting. I believed in the organization’s mission and I liked the fact that Ruth was completely unfazed by my disability. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the job.

I moved on. Eventually, I got a job working for a small non-profit. I disliked the job, but I stayed for the experience while searching for a new and more challenging opportunity. Several months into the job on a day I was feeling particularly down about my career, I got a call from Ruth. Following some small talk, I heard myself ask, “So do you have a job for me?” To my surprise, Ruth said she did. We agreed to meet the following week. I couldn’t believe that she’d kept my resume and called me after a year and a half!

When I met with Ruth, she asked about the accommodations I might need. Together, we identified a number of items namely the need for a designated support person to help me intermittently throughout the day with tasks such as putting on/taking off my coat, filing, accessing the elevator, etc. A week or so after our meeting, Ruth called to formally offer me the job. We reviewed the particulars about my accommodations and agreed to re-evaluate the situation once I’d settled in.

As I started working with clients, I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn about vocational rehab. I found that the more I learned the more certain I was that rehab (and Goodwill) was where I was meant to be. I liked what the profession stood for. Also, I came to understand that as a Vocational Rehab Counsellor with significant physical challenges, I had a unique perspective. I became increasingly cognizant of the impact my disability had on both my clients and other rehab professionals; and I learned to use myself in my work, often without saying so much as a word about my disability.

In large part, I was able to develop my professional skills because of the support I received from my colleagues and my manager. As my manager, Ruth set the tone. She ensured that the necessary accommodations were in place and addressed issues as they arose. Because of the atmosphere of dignity, fairness, and inclusiveness, I was able to concentrate on the work rather than on the logistics of everyday tasks. I established strong working relationships within Goodwill and in the larger rehab community, and forged close bonds with my peers, several of whom remain among my closest friends.

After 10 years at Goodwill, it was time for me to move on to the next chapter in my career. I went into private practice and built a small but successful consulting business, centering on my work with and on behalf of people with disabilities.

It’s been several years now since I stopped working. I reflect fondly on my career and sometimes wonder about my strong desire to work from such an early age. I didn’t particularly enjoy school, but work worked for me. I valued work. I like what it did for me. As it does for most people, work afforded me a sense of identity and purpose. It allowed me some measure of independence, power and control. And perhaps most importantly, work allowed me to give back; the opportunity to help someone achieve a goal and realize his/her own potential.

That’s the power of work!

Read more on this topic: LEFT BEHIND: The African woman’s uphill struggle»

by Annette Sultana
image: behind disabled woman on wheelchair via Shutterstock