By Ben Mattlin
My hands were in a cold sweat as I entered my wife’s third-grade classroom at a small private school in the San Fernando Valley. It was a hot, dusty afternoon, I recall, though my palms had their own thermostat. The school was informal in that Hollywood way; I knew many of the teachers by first name, and I enjoyed the pervasive echo of kids at educational play. My wife greeted me with a somewhat stagy peck on the cheek.
Then I took my position at the front of the colorful, glue-smelling room—my eyes darting from bulletin board to bulletin board to glean what the kids had been learning—and began what was truly a double mission. My wife had asked me to talk to her kids—as we referred to them in those days, before we had our own children and she gave up teaching—about my career as a budding freelance writer and my life as a permanent wheelchair user. To me, the two facts were seamlessly braided. But would this motley crew of eight- and nine-year-olds get that?
It was the early 1990s, and the Americans with Disabilities Act was still new. Most of it wasn’t even implemented yet. Diversity curricula were just starting to include the disabled as a genuine minority classification. I spoke to a lot of schools and community centers at the time, making the case for our movement, but my wife’s class was the only presentation where I was both cripple and career guy.
Everyone bears multiple identities: we have familial ties (father/mother, son/daughter, brother/sister) and professional designations. Some even overlap, such as “stay-at-home dad/mom.” But in case you haven’t been in this sort of dual-label situation, you should understand how disconcerting it can be to feel one side of you battling for validation against the other—or at least it was for me.
To my relief, the kids made a good audience. They’d been visited by other adults—parents—about careers, so they knew how to be respectful of guests. My technology captivated their attention. “How do you drive your chair?” was a not unexpected query. (Answer: With this tiny, super-sensitive joystick...see how it moves?) I loved that something I took for granted, something often stigmatized as pitiful or medical, was for them so cool. I was also unfazed by off-topic questions such as, “What’s your favorite color?” (answer: whatever color that particular kid was wearing), and the reliably giggle-inducing “How do you go to the bathroom?” (Same as you, but with help… I don’t use a catheter.)
Then one squirmy little girl looked me in the eye and asked, “What was the name of your first agent?” Not my second or third or current one—just the first! Somehow she’d picked up on my tale of publishing woes.
“Why? You want her number?” I felt like responding. Instead, I gave the name, which seemed to satisfy, and moved on to the next question. But I never forgot that moment. Not just the baffling specificity of the question, or the evident fact that she’d actually been listening, but the recognition of my dual status resonated. She was relating to me not as a physical curiosity but as a person, a professional, a sort of veteran of the literary trade. Or so it felt anyway.
Afterward, I began to wonder where my embarrassment, my awkwardness about this split sense of personality, came from. I’d grown up thinking my disability didn’t matter. It was a private concern, perhaps, but not relevant to the rest of my life. Then I learned the world didn’t really work that way. After graduating from Harvard, I interviewed for many editorial positions in New York and L.A.—and no one would hire me. My résumé got me in the door, but my scoliotic skin-and-bones physique, gliding on high-tech wheels, got me promptly shown the door.
In fairness, most potential employers were polite, and at the time I really couldn’t blame them. I knew I could write and edit, but I honestly wasn’t sure precisely how I would function in an office environment. If I was a victim of discrimination, it was understandable and still completely legal.
I always carried copies of tear sheets from student publications, and these were what helped me eventually land freelance assignments. Editors liked my writing; they just didn’t want me in their offices. Never was this brought home more clearly than when my dad tried to help. A friend of his started to offer part-time work, then learned of my disability and abruptly rescinded. “Why didn’t you tell me he’s in a wheelchair?” she scolded. “We can’t have someone like that representing our company.”
So, from these early experiences, I’d learned to keep my cripitude as hidden as possible in professional situations. I became a regular contributor to financial magazines and Web sites, always working from home by phone, fax, and email. Disability became my secret identity—except once, when I had to visit a boutique investment bank to interview its research director in person. Donning jacket and tie, I nervously plotted how best to present myself. But when I met the balding, middle-aged man I was to profile, he was gracious, warm and kind—and, I quickly noticed, had the shaking hands of early-stage Parkinson’s. We bonded instantly.
I know many disabled job seekers still debate whether to mention their “reasonable accommodations” on their résumés and cover letters. There is I think an advantage to being upfront, but even today it can close off a lot of opportunities.
The only career alternative I could see was to become a “professional cripple”—that is, someone who advises on or advocates for accessibility all the time. But that never interested me. I never felt my disability should define what I do or who I am. So my alter ego remained hidden.
Soon, however, having felt the sting of discrimination, I felt compelled to submit disability-related essays to major media outlets. I was thrilled but terrified when some of them were printed and broadcast on radio. What if I’m discovered—outed to my Wall Street constituents? I reassured myself that no one would notice, and if anyone did they’d probably assume it was a different Ben Mattlin. After all, it didn’t seem possible for a financial scribe to be so physically defective, did it?
Then, one day, it happened. I was interviewing a top securities analyst (by phone) when she asked if I was the one who’d just had an op-ed in the Times. “Guilty,” I confessed, holding my breath. “That’s me.”
“It was good,” she said. “Very interesting.”
Perhaps times had changed. In truth, there’d begun to be a few overlaps in my discrete worlds. For instance, financial magazines wanted stories about the need for “caregivers” for the aging population. There were insurance articles, too, addressing long-term care. I brought my insider’s authority to bear on such subjects. And, with age, my own hypocrisy began to eat at me. How can I argue that disabilities should be accepted as a normal part of life and society while simultaneously covering mine up? Maybe, I dared hope, I had sufficiently established myself as a journalist by now that my other identity might be deemed acceptable, even interesting, rather than a deficit. Maybe.
Look at my website and résumé now and you’ll see the full variety of my publishing achievements. From my essays about disability issues to my stories about financial subjects, they’re all there. I have online followers from both camps, too. I no longer seek to disregard my disability, but I don’t want to be judged by it either. My explanation, if anyone asks, is that I am a writer active in both worlds, proud of my versatility, the diversity of my accomplishments. That’s the unifying theme.
This doesn’t mean I’m immune to the old panic, however. The other day, a financial PR man I’ve worked with by phone and email was in town and invited me to lunch. I delayed answering. Unless he’d Googled me, he didn’t know about my disability!
We never did meet. By the time I responded, scheduling became too crazy. Next time, I promise, I won’t hesitate. All I have to do is remember that little girl who, with her odd question about my first agent, saw the whole me.
Ben Mattlin, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Financial Advisor magazine, is the author of MIRACLE BOY GROWS UP and the upcoming IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today, and has been broadcast on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
You can find his books for sale by clicking the book title links above.
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