Your Attitude Can Open Doors: Todd's Job Interview
As I faced my prospective employer that chilly day in November, I thought about the events and circumstances that led to this moment. I was a recent graduate with an AA degree in computer programming, and I had networked with family, friends, and school contacts to find leads to a job. When these attempts proved fruitless I sent my resume to all the employers I could find who were advertising for Visual BASIC computer programmers. Eventually, I was called for an interview. I was well-qualified for this job and was excited about the interview. What I did not include in my cover letter, however, was the fact that I have a disability and use a wheelchair.
I arrived for the interview at the appointed time and had my personal attendant knock on the office door. The large man who answered the door gazed at me and asked, "May I help you?" I replied, "I'm Todd, I'm here for the job interview." The man paused a moment, and then he invited me into his office, awkwardly rearranging the furniture to accommodate my wheelchair. The man's first question was, "How did you become disabled?" Eventually, he asked, "How do you use a computer?" By the end of the interview we were discussing my skills and credentials, not my disability. I was offered the position before I left. At eighteen-years-old, I had just landed my first job.
I live in my own apartment and work full-time as a computer programmer. I have good friends and an active social life. Though this may seem standard for the average college graduate, these achievements take on a different dimension for me as a person who is completely paralyzed below my shoulders. I have chosen not to let anyone inhibit my dreams or let my disability dictate my goals. I am in charge of my life and make my own decisions. My disability requires that I modify the way some things get done and allow more time for certain activities, but it hasn't required that I abandon my dreams, or release control of my life.
I credit much of my success to the supportive, yet demanding, environment I was raised in. I grew up in a very small town where everyone knew me and my family. Although I experienced little of the discrimination and isolation that people with disabilities often face, I did experience tragedy and troubles nonetheless. My father died in a motorcycle accident when I was four. Losing my father made me an angry and difficult boy. I just went downhill after my dad's death; I was so mad and angry inside. I got into a lot of fights and I swore all the time. I was a real bad kid. A gun accident at age eight left me with a severe spinal cord injury. From that day I have felt nothing below my shoulders and have used a ventilator to help me breathe in bed at night. On the day I came home after almost a year in the hospital, I wasn't even home 30 minutes when my mother and I got into a big fight, screaming and yelling at each other. My grandma came over and she got really upset that we were so upset. It was like a chain reaction. My sister Christy came home and she got yelled at too. Then we all just sat there and cried.
Life was difficult, but my mother held the family together. She supported us on what she earned from running a beauty salon in the small town we lived in. When the Shriner's organization offered to take responsibility for me and raise me in their residential hospital, my mother refused. I credit my mother with teaching me self-determination. I never questioned her conviction that I would grow up, get a job, move out, and lead a typical American life. My mother instilled in me from day one that there was no room for failure. There was no pity in our home. My mom always told me, 'when you're 18 you're out of here.' I never thought once that I'd have a problem finding a place to live or finding work. It never hit me once that I'd have a problem in society. I always knew I would work someday. I knew I had to make a lot of money because it's expensive to be disabled.
The President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities reported in 1994 that over three quarters of people with severe disabilities are unemployed, and I'm glad that I overcame these odds. I commend my mom, my faith, and the force of my own personality as factors in my successful transition to employment. Access to specialized technology has played a key role in my success as well. Through my school I was introduced to computers and through my participation in DO-IT I became skilled in accessing a computer and using it to help me reach my goals. Since I cannot type on a standard keyboard, I use special software to present a keyboard image on the screen. Then I select letters with a pointing device operated with my mouth.
I think the reason I have been successful as a person navigating our society with a significant disability is because of my attitude and personality. If it's in your mind that you're going to go for it, you will go for it. I just think it all has to come back to attitude. When you have a good attitude doors open for you. Being disabled and using your disability for good, you have a lot more opportunities than other people - really good opportunities. If you take them, some really neat things can happen in your life. I see my career in programming as just the beginning for me - an early step in my evolving journey. There are many, many things I would like to do, like public speaking and teaching. I'd really love to be in radio. I love music.
Producing music would be nice. I always thought it would be fun to go to different buildings with contractors and see if their buildings are accessible. I don't know. I have no idea what my purpose here is, but I know there is a purpose. It's been amazing so far, one adventure after another. It's been a sweet ride that I have no doubt will continue for the rest of my life. I am lucky to have family members and friends who encourage me to set high goals, work hard, make decisions and learn from my experiences on this journey.
[This success story has been modified and reproduced with the permission from the following publication: Burgstahler, S. (2006). Creating an e-mentoring community for teens with disabilities: How DO-IT does it and how you can do it, too. Seattle, WA: DO-IT, University of Washington, pp. 53-55.]