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Q&A: What kind of work do you do?
Finding a Job After a Spinal Cord Injury
I’m the Director of Advocacy here at Shepherd Center; this October will be my 30th anniversary. Some people—I describe it as stirring, connecting from public policy to public protest. I got recruited by the rehab that I was rehabbed in to come back and be a counselor for newly injured, do group stuff, sexuality stuff, you know the gamma counseling. And I told the administrator then that I’d be happy to do that for a year, but I’d like to sit down with him at the end of that year and talk to him. And what I began to realize was I can be the greatest counselor I was, but most of the problems were externally. It was building codes, it was public policy, it was lack of support systems. You know, back then there wasn’t any such thing as a van-only parking place, right, there wasn’t any such thing as a ramp or a lift on a bus, meaning a public bus. There wasn’t anything like beach matting over the soft sand. So, after a year, he brought me into his office as we agreed, and we had a conversation. He said, “well, what are you proposing?” And I said, “how about if I halftime counseling to pay for my job because they need to generate revenue, and halftime community education.” And so, I got involved at that time in setting up an independent learning center. Setting up not just support groups, but support groups that did advocacy. Back then it was the National Paraplegia Foundation, now it’s National Spinal Cord Injury Association, which is part of United Spinal or whatever. But it was a support group initially, and we had the three Cs: care, curing, coping. And so, we focused on the coping. And that meant everything from trying to make things more accessible physically, trying to create more support systems, trying to change public attitudes. Back then it was alright to call me “confined to a chair,” back then it was alright to call me “handicapped.” And what I began to realize was “I don’t want to be confined, my chair is a means of mobility.” I’m not, am I disabled? Sure. Are there things I can’t do? Sure, but that doesn’t make me less than something. And so, advocacy some was back then claiming your identity, you know being involved, and don’t wait for people to change things, you are the expert, you have to be involved in changing things. And sometimes that means you get into people’s face. So, I was involved in starting a group called “Adapt” back in ’83, and it took us seven years to finally get, as part of Americans with Disabilities Act, to get the ADA passed where it would say every new bus bought in the country will be accessible to everybody. But that was a seven-year campaign that involved a whole lot of things including public protests. So, I’ve blocked buses, I’ve chained myself to things, I’ve done sit-ins, I’ve spent three nights in a Phoenix jail. It still makes me nervous every time I protest now. I mean there is a whole lot of protest going on in the country as me and you are having this interview, related to cuts and caps to Medicaid, a very important funding stream for home community-based services. And so, you know, we could sit back as people who are different, and say “you know what is best for us.” And we can say “I know what’s best for me and I need to be involved." When people ask me about advocacy, I say “have you ever taken anything back?” Say you went to a local, like a Target or something, and you weren’t pleased with the product you brought. And so, you had to take it back to the customer service, “hey, I’m returning this because it’s not what I thought it was or doesn’t work right.” Well as I say, “that’s a form of advocacy, now you just need to make it more personal.” And it’s real hard, I mean back to the identity issues, it’s real hard for people I think, well, people are reluctant I think to do much advocacy about themselves because you’re not comfortable with themselves yet. And when you do advocacy, you bring a lot of attention to yourself, and if you’re not comfortable with yourself yet you tend to resist advocacy.
I work for an insurance broker doing healthcare. So, managing insurance malpractice for physicians, and doctors and major programs for different hospitals and healthcare facilities in the area.
Currently, I work—and I have this unique opportunity to meet people when they’re in their bed after they acquire a spinal cord injury, or an injury. I work at a rehab hospital in the city of Chicago, and I get to go into the rooms, and try to tell people that it’s going to be ok. You know, hopefully I can show them that it is, because it’s coming from me. I’m not a doctor—God knows I’m not really good at a lot of stuff—but when they’re on the bedside, and they’re counting those little dots in the ceiling, because all the hospitals have these ceilings, and they’re looking at the window, “What’s going to happen?” I come in, and I tell them what it’s going to be like. I want you to, like, ask me questions, like real deep questions, I want you to tell me what you’re feeling—“Am I going to be able to perform? I got a girl friend.”—“What about driving?”—“What about this thing, ‘bowel programs’?”—“You know, people are touching me and showing me, how’s that work?” Because for those that acquire disabilities, this is all new. Once we’re, like we catch their attention, we start connecting them with those resources available in the community, so they can be successful.
I am a rehabilitation psychologist at the Louis Stokes VA in Cleveland, Ohio. I work with patients who have both new and chronic spinal cord injuries. I also work with patients who are newly diagnosed, as well as chronic long-term veterans with multiple sclerosis and ALS.
I work at Shepherd Center. I work in our peer mentoring program called ‘Peer Support’. I stay in touch with community members who’ve been living with spinal cord injuries so that as new patients come through the center for rehab, our goal is to connect them with these community members, who represent their potential futures. Of course, we don’t have a crystal ball that says exactly what this person’s future is going to be. But if we can give them an example of their potential future, it gives a sort of a dangling carrot. That’s my goal. These are the things that I can achieve and I feel like it’s inspirational for a lot of people to see that other people with spinal cord injuries are carrying on. And hopefully it gives them a vision that they can carry with them, so that when they get home, when they’re going through their culture shock, that they can reflect on these moments and even have a point of contact to reach out to.
I work as an investigative assistant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. It’s a federal job, it works with the Department of Justice, and it’s pretty cool because, while it’s not a military role like l was before in the service, I deal with folks that are in the military all the time. I have guys that are agents that are prior marines, prior Armed Special Forces, pilots, navigators. So, it’s almost feels like I’m back home, except I’m not wearing uniform, I’m just wearing a regular suit to work, or whatever else. While my job is very much an administrative support role, that’s fine because I still get to do the stuff behind the scenes. I take care of reports, I take care of investigations, and packages and such. A lot of stuff I really can’t talk about, but biggest thing is we deal with is the war on drugs, and I get to see that stuff every day.
I'm a social worker. I work for a private consulting and case management firm here in the Chicago area. All my clients are catastrophic injury, so mostly spinal-cord and brain injuries. And I start with them from close to a day or two after initial injury. I work with them with and the families in the facilities—work with them in the hospital, rehab, back home. Modify the homes, work with contractors—getting them equipment, vehicles, back to school—whatever the case may be, kind of the whole process. I travel a lot, I have clients all over Illinois, Indiana, I have some clients in Kansas City now, Philadelphia, upper Wisconsin, so I do a lot of traveling. Most of the time it's just for the day, so it's nice, I can leave early in the morning, be gone most of the day, and back home in the early evening. Then I can take the next day off and work at home, so it's nice.
I work at a car dealership and I work in wholesale parts. So basically, I sit behind a desk, I talk to people on the phone and I put orders through on the computer. So, if you wreck your car, and it needs to be repaired at a body shop and they need to get parts from the dealer, they call me, or they send it through online or something like that. So, day in, day out, it’s not the—it’s a pretty good job, it’s in the field that I like to be in, so I enjoy that part of it.
I'm a writer, spiritual writing. And I do like...I'm trying, actually, I kind of feel like I'm on a mission to eliminate negative thoughts, worries, stress, etc—all of those things running around in our brain. I just finished a book entitled, "Getting Exactly What We Deserve."
I’m a payroll manager for a nonprofit. Getting to work was very difficult, so I lost my job. I was an estimator, construction estimator, which was not a thing that—I could probably still go back and do it—I didn’t make that effort to go back to it because I was still in a little shock and full of depression. But when I finally got out of it, I started volunteering at a bunch of different places. I had volunteered at the Humane Society here in Atlanta prior to my injury, so I went back and they made an office position for me so I could still be around the animals. Started doing that, looking for work, and then I always enjoyed human resources, and I started doing human resources with a nonprofit here in Atlanta called “Points of Light.” And they liked my work product so much that they offered me a fulltime position doing payroll. So, it’s kind of how I got in to being a payroll manager.
I for many years, for 20-years, I coordinated peer support and peer counseling program. And that was, I'm employed by, by an independent living center, but we had a contract with the rehabilitation, the rehab center, and so, my work was at the rehab center. And what I did was coordinate a group of volunteers, and train them to be able to go and meet with newly injured spinal cord patients and their families, if they wished, and talk about life with a disability, because this was brand new to new patients. But it becomes pretty old hat to those of us living who are with a disability. And I firmly, so it's really peer counseling, and I firmly believe that the best expert is the person who's living with the disability. A couple of years ago, I decided that was, it was time for a change. And so now, I am part of a team that is the arts and culture team at the independent living center, where I work. And what we do is coordinate events to promote disability culture, and pride and arts. People who are working artists who have disabilities.
I work for McDonalds Corporation, and my primary job is in menu management. So I’m in charge of one of the groups that develop new products, and test them, and try them out around different markets in the country and such, and something is going to make it or not. But, over the years, McGriddles, salads, McFlurries, the Angus Burger, you know, all those types of things are things that we did. And then we worked on burgers of the month, and all that type of thing.
I work here at Shepherd Center doing peer support, and then I also have a company called “Handy Accessories.” Where I make adaptive-grasping cuffs to work out, and fish, and some eating utensils and some other things like that to help mostly people with limited hand function kind of be independent with some of the things that they like to do.
I’m in sales, telecommunications, and I travel around the North East, North West, as well as South East selling to my customers. And it’s a great job. I’m a people person, so it’s interacting with people, but it also gets me out and about with the travel.
I'm a peer mentor/ peer speaker. We go out to juvenile centers, churches, to schools, and we talk to youth about the consequences of gang involvement and drug activity. It's not a "Scared Straight" program; it's basically to give you information. What the children tend to do with this information, it's up to them. We just try to explain to them that it's their choice, and what choice they make is going to affect them later on in life. So, it's best to make the best decision you can while you're young.
I do two different programs, one of them is called, "In My Shoes," which is a violence-prevention program. And, basically is, we go out to certain schools, certain districts, and we basically share our stories. Give them a little bit of education about the spine, how it works, and how it doesn't work once something happens to it. And, you know, after that we go into our stories, share with them how we were living out there on the streets, you know, doing the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons, and then basically, you know, got shot, wound up in this wheelchair pretty much for the rest of my life. So it's, you know, like, a little eye-opener, so they could hopefully change their ways in what they're doing. And then other one is peer mentoring, which, basically, when people come to the unit, new injuries, we go up to their rooms, you know, try to build relationships, trust, friendship. So, that way we can offer them resources, our experiences, you know, what agencies work, what agencies don't, and recommend the best, you know, what we've been through. So, make it easier for them.
I work for the CTA, which is the Chicago Transit Authority. I'm an ADA auditor, that's the Americans With Disabilities Act, I make sure the system is working correctly, make sure it's compliant to the ADA laws as far as the buses, the rail and everything to do with ADA issues.
Family businesses, roads and bridges, heavy highway work, construction and I still dearly miss running some of the big equipment. We are still in that business, I still split my time. So, doing that and doing it from using your mind’s view rather than doing the physical labor.
I have been working as a teacher’s assistant for Arizona State University. That was actually before I even started school. English is my very big forte and I graded papers. And that actually gave me really good insight on college in general, and that teachers will be willing to work with you if need be. And it felt good to work again a little bit too.
I am the coordinator of a program called Think First. I’ve been doing this for 15 years. Think First is a national program; we try to stop young people from getting brain and spinal cord injuries. We go to schools, churches, synagogues, and any kind of community organization where children congregate. We can tell them there is a better way, but you got to make a decision on where it is, and what you want to do. Because there are people who will lead you down a path of destruction, but you have to be able to say, “No, I’m not doing that.”
My first job was with the Public Building Service of the federal government—the General Services Administration. My undergraduate degree was in comprehensive design, a very broad, a very broad approach to design in undergraduate school. I received a phone call from the Rehabilitation Institute in late spring, asking me if I would be interested in running a design advocacy program they had. I said, "Yes," for a number of reasons, and I loved it. I was there for three years, and said this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, I want to be a design communication advocate. But I wanted to do it as a professional. So, I decided to return to school, get a graduate degree in architecture, work as an architect and then slowly get involved in accessibility. During that time, the ADA was passed, which accelerated interest, accelerated awareness of the impact of architectural barriers. And so, things started falling into place. I worked for a large firm in the city of Chicago for about 12 years, half of that time as a conventional architect, but the last half of that getting more and more involved in barrier-free design and accessibility issues, to a point where I decided I could start my own firm. So, two other associates of the firm and I started our own firm 14 years ago now, and we now have 23 people, and we're doing real well.
I’m a key assistant location manager for film and television productions filming in the Atlantic area. It's basically large scale event planning. Like, I have a location where we’re going to film. And I’ve got 300 people I need to feed somewhere, and park somewhere, and set up a base camp, and make sure that they have air conditioning and toilets. And so, it's basically event planning, just every day for weeks on end.
I’m a licensed professional counselor now. I work at Positive Growth Boy’s Group Home and I’m in the process of networking to be in my private practice Creating a Difference.
Insurance, financial services, and that’s why I could say never would’ve saw myself getting into this field. But it’s so funny how it came about because it was such a need that I had at the time of my injury that now I’m focused on helping others, you know, achieve some of the things that I did not have in place myself.
I am a gastroenterologist. And when I first got hurt, I had hopes of going back to working in the same office. But they would probably take me back to work in the office, but it’s 33 miles away and I don’t want to do that kind of commute anymore. And so, I worked for WebMD for a little while, for a few years, and then I started to see patients online. I work for a company called “Health Tap,” and I actually see patients for second opinion, consults and all that kind of thing by video chat, and pretty much logon every day. And I’m not super busy, I’d prefer it to be more busy, but it’s a way to keep thinking in a medical way, and keep my license curren, and keep able to feel like I’m participating in the medical world still.
Right now, I'm a consultant. I do, it's called Asset Building Work and it is essentially how can people save and earn in order to either get out of poverty, or stay out of poverty, so acquire assets that help their long-term stability. And I help organizations; I work for the government, I'm an independent contractor. So it's pretty much, I don't help individuals that much, I've never gone down to the individual level as far as their personal finances. I'm not an investment specialist by any means, but I do help non-profits and government organizations help other people get out of poverty and stay out of poverty.
I am an account specialist for Yokohama Tire. It’s a data entry position, I’ve been there 20 years. It’s customer service, data entry, answering the phones, talking to customers, kind of the backbone of our business.
I’m in construction, so I manage large commercial construction projects. Fortunate for me, I do the same job I did before I got injured. However, I mean, obviously there’s a little more consideration for me personally about how to get around the job site and do certain things. But, I do the same things now as I did before.
I'm actually a peer speaker where I go all over Chicago speaking to kids about violence prevention. Tell them how, the program is about focusing consequences of gang and drug activity, and I just pretty much facilitate to them, tell them about the brain and the spine, and what happens to your body when you have a spinal cord injury and open the floor for any questions after that. And I also have another job where I'm a long-term mentor for people that just got injured. We usually match the injuries up so that person can know exactly what that person is going through, and just pass down information.
I’m one of those industrious guys; I’ve always got to be doing something. So I worked for a home builder—obviously we know where that business is at now, they’re virtually nonexistent, they can barely keep the employees they have—the president did tell me, “At any time you want to come back, give me a call, nobody can tell me ‘no.’” With that in mind, I keep that in my back pocket, so one day when things come around, I can pull that card and use it. In the interim, I have actually got a couple of friends that own machine shops, and I am a hands-on working on the machine shops at various levels, from helping them with sales. Like I told you, I’m not pulling a penny, I’m doing it, right now, for the experience, to get out the house, and maybe ultimately to have another career.
I’m the Assistant Vice President of Development at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital. My main job is to raise money to help pay for things that insurance doesn’t cover that our patients need.
My son is a consultant with the McKinsey Company; I'm just his, his personal and business assistant. I just travel with him, and do everything that is required for traveling on airplanes, and for his personal care, and then I become, when we walk into the client, I become his personal assistant.
My current position is, I work for the state of Illinois, that's the Illinois Secretary of State's office. Jessie White is our Secretary of State, and I basically serve as his disability liaison, and I coordinate programs and services for persons with disabilities in his office. Generally, I work on legislation that affects people with disabilities in the Secretary of State's office.
I’m a marriage and family counselor. And so, I have a private practice, and I have five therapists that work with me, and we work with children, and adolescence, families, divorce, recovery, issues around marriage counseling.
I am the peer mentor coordinator at Schwab rehab. We offer our friendship, advice, we have, there are so many roles that we play. It is just better for someone that's freshly acquired a spinal cord injury to visibly be able to see someone that has been doing it for awhile. It really helps their morale; it helps them to see that you need to stay healthy. It's easier for someone with a fresh injury to listen to what I'm saying, even though the doctors are professionals. Sometimes you have that little thought in the back of your head, "well I don't know," but it's just easier to take from somebody that's in your own shoes.
I'm a peer mentor, which I help newly acquired spinal cord injury patients transition to their new lives as people with disabilities. And so, I try to help them, like, hook them up with other agencies or service providers that can help them live, like, well have, a better quality of life.
I'm a medical supply provider, and I work with hospitals on providing the urological supplies for patients that, that are getting discharged from hospitals. So that's what I do, and it's a good job—I love my job because I am not only, you know, a representative, I'm also a customer of these supplies. So, I can relate to, to the patient that's getting the supplies that we are putting forward to him. So, yeah, I like, I like my job.
I am a disability resource coordinator at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, so my job is to help people with disabilities reintegrate back into the community. So, I provide resources. You know, it could be something as simple as getting a placard, or something a little bit more complex—if they want to get into college, or get back into the work force. My job is to make sure that, you know, they get this information.
I am the business manager at the RIC Sports and Fitness Program—RIC being the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. I feel like I've sort of come full circle in that, you know, that was sort of the place I started, you know, in my recovery. And now, I'm sort of able to contribute at the back end and support the program that really made a difference in my life.
The kind of work I do is multiple things. One, I’m a professional speaker—I speak to different high schools and businesses as a speaker about motivation, inspiration, leadership. I travel around and speak to thousands of people. Two, I’m the CEO and President of Wheelchair Body Building, Inc—we’re the voice of wheelchair body building. Three, I’m the CEO, Founder and President of Wheelchair Athletics, Inc, a 501 (C) (3) non-profit that I founded back in 2008.
I chose to go to McKinsey and Company here in Chicago. McKinsey is a managerial consulting firm, and we basically go and help companies solve tough problems. At McKinsey I started off as an associate, and now I’m an engagement manager, which means I’m the guy who’s in charge of a few new associates or younger tenured people. The model at McKinsey is fly to the client on either Sunday night or Monday morning. So I get up at maybe 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning on Monday, and then we drive to the airport, take the earlier flight out. I have to take the flight that fits my wheelchair though, so I can’t always take the commuter jet that’s at the right time. I got to take at least a 737 where my chair will fit. And then we get to the client probably between 10:00 am and noon on Monday, and then my typical schedule is I work until about 10:00pm or midnight. I try to have lights out by midnight, doesn’t always work that way, but I’ve found I need to be out of my chair about a minimum of six hours a day for my body to kind of recover. But I get up at 6:00 am in the morning, and I’ll be working in at 7:00 am, and then again, typically work until 10:00. And then I fly home Thursday evening, hopefully without delays, you’re back in Chicago by 10:00 that Thursday night. And then Fridays are a bit nicer; we work, you know, eight or nine hours on Friday. And then, I’m very protective of my weekends, so unless there’s a big fire drill with a client, I try to work only Sunday evenings to get ready for the week again. But I typically don’t look at my Blackberrys on a Saturday. That’s my one rule.
I work at AON Corporation in Corporate Treasury and basically we just kind of, it's just finance stuff. They put in automatic doors for the bathrooms and for the general office area, so I can get in and out. And, they provided me with voice software I guess, what is it—voice-recognition software, "Dragon." So, I have trouble typing sometimes, but I never use it because it's awkward to be talking in your cubicle when everyone is else around, so I just type. I would say there's no difference between what I do and what everyone else does. Because I'm in a wheelchair doesn't really make a difference; everyone is sitting down in front of the computer anyway, as am I.