Working from home became a necessary adjustment at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees around the world are quickly learning to adapt to their new workspace norms–but for many, being adaptive was a way of life long before COVID-19 entered the headlines.
RVer Alex Rupprecht–a technical writer in our Charlotte office–is here to share a bit about his journey as a professional with a disability, and to shed a light on the deeper struggles of workplace inclusion.
For years, people with disabilities have been turned away from jobs they are qualified for on the grounds that “working from home simply isn’t possible for this position.” However, at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, employees around the world shifted into remote work settings almost overnight. This shift in work habits and the sudden shift in the acceptance of working from home has led to further conversations around inequality in the workplace.
I’m not disabled, but I do have a disability. When I became an incomplete quadriplegic almost four years ago, I realized that there were two choices.
- Lay down and give up.
- Get up and make the best of my life.
For me, there was only one choice. I was going to be in pain whether I laid in bed or went out to greet the world. As I’m lucky enough to have a career that is not labor-intensive and offers good benefits, I’m still able to live independently and work full time. Many people are not this lucky. I still shop for groceries and clean my apartment. Some people look at me with confusion, pity, and sometimes even disgust, but instead of letting this get to me, I am resilient, and continue to do things that make people’s jaws drop in amazement. I’ve filled my time with skiing, mountain biking, swimming, sled hockey, CrossFit, and tennis. I’ve stayed very active as an adaptive athlete.
Adaptive is a term that has recently become popular. For those of us who rely on wheelchairs to navigate daily life, we constantly have to adapt to the world around us.
We adapt to using bathrooms, navigating inaccessible spaces, doing laundry, driving, playing sports, and talking on the phone while rolling. The tasks that most people take for granted, I’ve had to adapt so that I can be independent successfully.
Adapting isn’t easy and having a disability can be frustrating, as well as mentally and physically painful. However, there are always two sides to any situation. Those of us who have learned to adapt carry a special set of skills. We are full of ingenuity and determined to succeed. This skillset makes for successful employees, though often those of us with disabilities are overlooked because we’re viewed as different or less than.
Let’s look at just one segment of the disabled population. There are 291,000 people with a spinal cord injury (SCI) living in the U.S. At the time of injury, 66% of those people are employed. After a year, 17.4% are employed, and after ten years only 23% are employed. There are approximately 17,730 new SCI cases each year. In 2018, only 19.1% of people with disabilities were employed. In contrast, 65.9% of people without disabilities were employed.
In the blink of an eye, any one of us could become part of this life-changing statistic.
Often, returning to work with a disability means deciding between a career and the critical healthcare and medical supplies that we need to survive. If you’re lucky enough to qualify for private insurance there are still many out-of-pocket costs to consider. The average rigid wheelchair costs around $7,000. A new minivan with wheelchair conversions has an average price tag of $70,000. (Unconverted minivans retail for around $30,000.)
For those that rely on Medicaid, in order to keep disability benefits, your monthly earnings cannot exceed $1,260 a month. If your employer does not offer sufficient or affordable insurance, you must limit work hours or opt not to work in order to survive. In North Carolina, the income limit to keep Medicaid benefits is $1,041 a month. The current poverty line is $12,784. Yet the average yearly living expenses for someone with a spinal cord injury ranges from $44,000 to $196,107.
In this system there is no way to come out on top. Many people with disabilities are stuck in a catch-22 that leaves them hovering around the poverty line. Until the world believes that people with disabilities have value in the workplace, this will continue to be the case.
I’m not disabled. I’m a successful technical writer, artist, and musician with an active social life who just happens to use a wheelchair. I’ve had to learn to take a deep breath when the handicap stalls on every floor are taken, but the other stalls are empty. I often have to choose between polite education or just leaving it alone when people illegally park in handicap spaces. I’ve formed a community with my fellow adaptives. We laugh and cry together and figure out life, when all too often our doctors have no answers. I’ve had to re-evaluate what my life means, the part I play in the world, and how I choose to contribute.
I want people to remember, at any point in your life, within 30 seconds you can become another person living with a disability. I can’t say I’m still the same person I was before my SCI — everything in my life has changed. However, there’s a common thread that bonds us all: whether you’re determining what to make of your own life when confronted with a challenge, or deciding how to interact with someone else, you always have a choice. Stop and take time to get to know us, because I’m so much more than a wheelchair user.