Categories: Lessons from the Road
Welcome to Lessons From The Road, our monthly blog section bringing you advice, ideas and perspectives from leaders who happen to have disabilities.
We recently held our annual Lime Fellowship Program Leadership Symposium for our new incoming class of Fellows representing a variety of U.S. universities. The fellows attended workshops focused on career, professional and leadership development. One of the most rewarding parts of the Symposium, for many Fellows, was the time spent discussing the positive shift they would like to see around perceptions of disability in the working world and the leadership role they each want to play in that shift. The Fellows started to realize that this positive shift starts with the perspective they each hold around their own disability and how they interact with the world from that place. They started to realize how important it is to them to take a stand for the unique abilities, strengths and opportunities that come from being a person with a disability.
One moment that inspired our deeper dive into the topic on personal perspectives was Pete Denman's keynote speech at our awards dinner. Pete is a very talented Senior User Experience Designer at Intel Corporation and is someone with both an obvious disability (C4-5 Quadriplegic) and non-obvious disability (dislexic). Through his very real and humorous story, he introduced the idea that it can be not only liberating to talk about your disability with others, but also a confidence-building and, ultimately, career-enhancing move.
Read Pete's speech from the Symposium. Enjoy and please comment on your reaction and what you personally take away from his words.
"I’m Pete Denman. I am an interaction designer IxD specializing in user experience UX, in the Labs at Intel corporation. Our job is to fill the pipeline for the next generation of products. We are the designers and engineers who imagine tomorrow's technologies. I work with some of the most talented and smart people in the world.
Thank you for having me and thank you Susan Lang and Suzanne Aptman for putting this whole event together. I would like to compliment Tom Wilson and the board of directors of Lime Connect. Also, thank you to Lime’s corporate partners: Google, PepsiCo, Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs, and Target.
Above all, congratulations Fellows and thank you for applying to the Lime Connect Fellowship program.
Just one more thank you. Thank you Ben Foss. Ben recognized something in me that I didn’t realize was there and he has opened the door to a few fantastic opportunities. This is one of them. I wouldn’t be here without Ben. More significantly, I wouldn’t be talking about my disability without Ben encouraging me.
Being upfront can be liberating
In the few years that I have opened up about my journey I have also seen some great leaps in my career. Being upfront and clear has been liberating and has changed my spirit and outlook, It has also given me credibility with my peers.
You may be thinking it’s the elephant in the room. It’s a wheelchair. Why would I need to explain anything to my peers? The chair is a concrete symbol of an issue of mobility. I’ll talk about the wheelchair, and yes it’s an elephant, but there is something more. There is the “other thing” you don’t see, the hidden problem. It’s a problem that has always seemed to be a bigger issue. You see, I’m dyslexic and there isn’t a wheelchair for dyslexia. I don’t have a dyslexic accent, It’s not in my hair or eyes or skin color. Dyslexia is much deeper than something as trivial as skin color. It brings a stigma, and for me a level of embarrassment/shame.
That shame that once accompanied hidden disabilities is lifting. In the same way that I saw the shame around being in a wheelchair lifted years ago. No longer does dyslexia or other non-obvious disabilities equal “slow/dumb”. This is because of organizations like Lime Connect and because people are talking about it, not hiding their disabilities.
This speech is supposed to be all about corporate life and working. Well, yes, but I think it’s about perspective. Your perspective, your families and peers perspective and the perspective of your school and/or employer.
The lens with which you experience the words “perspective” and “disability” is made of all these things. Let me explain how I built my perspective.
Building a new perspective
I’m a c 4-5 Quadriplegic, I broke my neck when I was 20. I can only use one arm to a limited degree and can’t feel much below my injury. I spent 3 full years recovering and becoming accustomed to my new reality.
I learned that with reasonable accommodations, there isn’t a difference between my performance and anyone who is able-bodied. In the simplest terms, a ramp will get me to the same spot that stairs will get a straight-legger. I don’t want to be the guy who does well despite the chair. I just want to kick ass. I want my work and reputation to be based on my output without an *** next to it.
Being sarcastic and rebellious by nature, I find it entertaining to challenge the stereotype. I became fiercely independent and sought out adventure. I invented things to help me bridge the gap between what I couldn’t do and wanted to do. I turned my chair into a way of getting things done. No one expected that guy to do “that” and it was hugely satisfying when I pulled it off.
Pete & Re-Pete
My life has been a series of do-overs. Breaking my neck was kind of a fresh start. It was an opportunity to do it different.
I started someplace very different. I was in the middle. I was middle class. I was a medium sized white kid except for 2 things: my grades and my intelligence. My grades sucked and I was above average IQ. I know this because I was tested a lot.
It didn’t matter how smart I was. I wasn’t performing. Sometime in the first grade I became aware I was dumb; that the other kids were so much smarter than me. Meeting me, you would never know I was dumb. I seemed perfectly normal, but everyone at school knew and everyone in my family knew.
I went to a small catholic grade school. The classes were small and typically the student that started 1st grade would finish 8th grade together. This was your family and just like a family you knew everything about these kids that you spent years with. These were the kids you played ball with. They were the kids in scouts and the same kids at church.
The nuns in charge of my education reported “Pete is bright and personable, but isn’t trying”. Eventually I would give up... and stop “trying”. I was caught in a system that had one path for success. These were teachers who didn’t have tolerance for left handed students, so a kid like myself fell into 1 of 2 categories: stupid or lazy. The stage was set for failure.
The next few years was a humiliating war between me and the written word: the major battles taking place daily with one textbook or another; standing nervously in front of the class stumbling and choking out the words. There was no relief from the feeling I was “less than” the next person and everyone know it.
Each term was punctuated by a visit by Father Walkter. It was like a celebrity visiting. The nuns would swoon and gush for days leading up to his visit about how lucky we were. I knew the sadistic truth - this was the day that I’d be confirmed as the “dumb kid”. Father would sit in front of class, then call each student up and read report cards silently as we stood next to him, after which he’d make complementary remarks or give you a glaring look and quip about improvement. By the time I was in the 3rd grade these humiliations turned me into a shell of a kid. I was a stupid kid and everyone knew it.
On a spring evening, my parents sat me down and told me I wouldn’t be moving on to the 4th grade. I’d be staying behind to catch up. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I mentioned this out loud. It was this quiet secret that many people knew, but no one would mention.
In a series of conversations with Ben, he coaxed this demon out of me. With tears in my eyes I confessed I was held back. He convinced me I was worth something and that I needed to stop hating myself. It wasn’t me who failed; it was the system. This is when the lights came on for me. In elementary school, however, the shame was overwhelming. Absolute proof that I didn’t measure up.
I was humiliated. I became even more distant from my peers.
The second try at 3rd grade my parents were on a mission to cure me. I was blitzed through physiatrists and specialists, all of who confirmed the nun’s assessment that “I was bright, and it must be because I wasn’t trying”. One physiatrist added “Pete is profoundly depressed”.
Sometime during that year, I had a spelling test. I began to get dizzy and couldn’t breath. I was in a full panic attack. About three months earlier, I started going to an ophthalmologist, he knew how to fix me. I just had a problem with my eyes. I would sit in a room filled with contraptions of all sorts, staring at spinning circles, working on hand eye coordination (which I had no problems with).
Part of the regimen was hours of similar exercises at home. At the same time, I stepped up the studying. Flash cards and constant drills performed ad-hoc by my folks. And… I failed. Of course I did.
Why did I fail? 2 reasons:
First, spelling BS. That is what spell-check is for. Spelling doesn’t dictate how good a writer you are and isn’t writing the point? Second, like many of you in this room, I am wired differently. A lot of you know what I’m talking about because you also have a hidden disability: ADHD, seizure disorders, arthritis or something else.
In 8th grade, I was finally identified by a specialist as being dyslexic. She reported I read at a 3rd grade level. She was also clear about 2 things: First, that this is not curable; it was part of me. And second that it didn’t mean I was dumb.
It was nice of her to say but I had 9 years of evidence that had left its mark.
I made it through her program, and reading did get easier, but even today I read slow. Every once in awhile I’ll notice the effortless way someone will scan a page and get content from it. It seems like magic to me. It’s like watching someone walk up a flight of stairs. I know it can be done and that it’s a common, easy thing to do, but I just can't do it any more then I could fly.
On the other hand, I could do stuff that seemed so easy that other people struggled with. This was when I discovered I was good at spatial awareness, mechanics, building and inventing. This was the summer I fixed a broken lawn mower engine and built my own go-cart. I learned about woodworking and mechanics. When I was 14 I bought my first car with money from mowing lawns. In the next 15 months, while waiting to turn 16 I replaced the brakes, rebuilding the master cylinder and 2 brake calipers, replaced the automatic transmission with a 5 speed manual adding a clutch, I put a side draft carburetor in it and rebuilt the head. I intuitively understood how things worked.
Then, I partied my way through 4 years at the worst high school in the state. A year later I broke my neck. I was paralyzed for life.
Finding my tools
About 2 years after my injury, my mother wanted to take a class in Art history and asked me to go. She proceeded to sell the idea: “I could audit and enjoy the art”, “I could get out of the house”. The first few years of life, after an injury like mine, is a wagon train of slow progress through rough territory, strange illnesses, crazy expenses. During the journey, friends drop off the trail never to be heard from again. Family members are over burdened. Trying school again requires an extraordinary leap of optimism.
When I signed up for class, I learned about the accommodation the school offered to the disabled. I could have extra time on tests, I could have a helper write my answers to questions on tests. I could have a note taker in class and I could have digital copies of all my text books. These were great accommodations for the physical problems, but they were even more crucial for my hidden disability.
I never told anyone I was dyslexic and took full advantage of the accommodation. From the very first test I knew there was a difference. I was unburdened and was able to put my mind to the task of learning. I wasn’t struggling with the rudimentary problems that held me back before. And, I wasn’t ashamed by my past failure because no one knew my history. I wasn’t the dumb kid here. I was just the guy in the chair. Suddenly, shockingly, school was no longer a prison where I counted the minutes before class ended. I wanted to know what was next. I loved school. I was learning. I was getting good grades and I wasn’t doing it any slower than anyone else in class despite my disability. I did have to start at the bottom in every subject. I pretty much did high school over. In just a couple of years, I moved on to university and in a total of 6 years I had my degree (including retaking most of my highschool classes).
Asking for Accomodations
I was smart! Who knew?
Don’t follow my example and don’t be shy about asking for accommodations in work or school. It’s important for you but it’s also important for your school, your work, for the people you collaborate with and for the disabled students and work force following in your footsteps.
I haven’t gone into great detail about my physical disability. My viewpoint on this very large aspect of my reality is that I largely ignore it (Well kind of). In reality it is a huge part of my life. I need help doing almost everything. Life, for me, is complicated by a lot of planning and a lot of help. I’ve just developed tools to work through problems.
Here’s an example of my life in a chair. It shows how sharing my disability needs with my employer helped me and my employer -- remember Intel benefits from me being here. The planning and preparation that got me here today (from Portland Oregon to New York City) all started a month ago.
1. You see to get on an aircraft I have to transfer twice. This means I need 4 big guys to lift me out of my chair and into the isle chair and then into my seat.
2. When I travel, I have a care giver who flies with me. I need to fly her out; I need to feed her; and get her a hotel room.
3. A week before I leave, I send all the gear I’ll need ahead of me;
4. Most of the time the transportation on the ground is a complete variable, so showing up in a city hoping for a cab that will get you there is a long shot. Mass transit is also hit and miss, so a little planning helps a lot.
So why do I ignore the physical disability then? I ignore it because, with a bag of tools and a good attitude, these are doable things.
This is where being open about my needs changed my perspective again. For years, I didn’t travel a lot. When I did travel, I would always pay for my care givers ticket accommodations. About 2 years ago my manager asked my why I wasn’t taking advantage of some opportunities that were opening up to me. I explained. He said he was hesitant to ask for fear of offending me but if it was just about money…………
I was being silly. He told me that I should be there, wherever it was, and let him worry about the cost. He needed my voice and expertise in the room. That conversation with my manager literally opened the world up to me.
Intel has seemed like a dream. “Labs” is a perfect fit for my skill set and personality. I no longer wonder if I’m as talented as that other guy. I’ve earned confidence and feel like it’s not only safe to talk about my abilities, but that it is crucial. I am in the midst of some of the most exciting work I have ever done. Last year I invented a completely unique way of visualizing data using biomimicry. I was featured in Core77 magazine on my work with data and was asked to present my work at an international conference in Ireland this spring.
I am also honored to be the lead interaction designer working on the Steven Hawking project. Steven’s degenerative condition has systematically robbed him of his voice and slowed his output to a labored tedium, producing less than one word per minute. After months of careful design and research we have both the input method and user interface in prototypes ready to test with Steven.
Now it’s your turn to make your mark.
I haven’t finished yet but need your voice with mine.
I’m not an anomaly, and I’m not alone. Look around the room. You have the gifts that it takes to change perceptions and change the world. So my point isn’t “go out and break your neck, it will fix all your problems”. My point is, give people the tools to succeed and that “smart” shouldn’t have such a limited definition.
Incredible achievements by dyslexics, in all creative fields, is by far disproportionate to that of dyslexics in the population. If you fly Virgin, bank with Schwab, make copies at Kinko's or use a computer system with a Cisco Router, you should know that you rely on products and services that dyslexics have built. We represent 35% of entrepreneurs.
All people with disabilities are entrepreneurs. We have unique challenges that require custom solutions. We are the creative thinkers. We are already outside the box. We have a magical ability to see things the other 90% miss. We have ambition built from frustration; imagination and creativity that feeds design and innovation. We think in pictures and talk in metaphor. We build solutions; we don’t buy them. We are smarter than the next guy!
Stereotypes of all kinds proceed us. If we can’t stop people from developing stereotypes, lets change the way we are perceived. Let’s change the conversation and give people the right understanding about our strengths; not our limitations. Lets change their perspective.
This is my challenge to you.
You have already broken the mold, now share your story and enlighten people about the opportunities. No one will be better at changing the conversation than you."
Do you know a leader with a disability who has great wisdom to share? Email me at Suzanne.Aptman@Limeconnect.com.