16 Years, 7 Surgeries, 6 Jobs, 5 Chronic Illnesses, 1 Career Switch… and Still Working
What role do you play in your company? How has your disability informed the type of work that you do?
I’m currently a Data Science Manager, though I’ve been leaning more towards Data Engineering recently. I work with a small team to perform analysis on user data and guide the data strategy for our organization. My disability has strongly dictated the kind of work I do as it greatly limits my ability to use a keyboard. Previously I’ve worked as an engineer and senior engineering manager, launched a new product, and started the data science organization in our group.
I’ve had to be incredibly creative about how I approach my work so that I can continue working even when my pain is significantly flared up and my arm function is low. I will respond to emails with a phone call or will walk over to the person’s desk. Slack has been a challenge, but my voice recognition software has gotten significantly better in working with it. I’ll often suggest working collaboratively with someone and ask them to drive the computer.
Have you disclosed your disability to your manager or coworkers at work? What has that been like?
It was really hard at first, but at the same time it was a work-related injury, so it was pretty widely known on my team. I was even able to hire an assistant to be my arms during the peak of my injury.
I’ve disclosed my disability to my manager, my close coworkers, and my reports, but not to the organization at large. Since I’ve been at my employer for over 20 years, many people are aware of my injury. Sharing my experience with colleagues has been surprisingly rewarding. People often refer newly injured and disabled people to talk to me about how I work with a disability (especially for work-related injuries).
There was a particular colleague who I asked to help me out when I was experiencing a lot of pain. Six months later, he opened up to me about struggling tremendously with chronic pain as well. It was incredibly rewarding to see how my story inspired him to not only ask for more accommodations at work, but to continue seeking treatment. Years later, he is now finally experiencing periods of the day without pain for the first time in over eight years, and he continues to improve.
I’ve never gotten any push-back when asking coworkers to pair program or work on a problem collaboratively where they drive a computer. My injury has allowed me to grow professionally and enabled me get better at asking for help. I always have to remind myself that the things I’m asking for are easier for someone who isn’t injured the way I am.
How does your disability impact how you think about your career path?
The original injury was a huge impetus to grow in my career. I was an individual contributor at the time and was constantly frustrated by how little I could accomplish by myself. I had big dreams and I couldn’t realize them on my own. But that didn’t stop me from pushing myself really hard and overworking myself. After the injury, that wasn’t an option anymore. I needed to learn how to lead, how to manage people, and how to achieve my goals by inspiring others.
That said, I was very insecure about my ability to compete in the job market after that first injury. I ended up switching positions every 3 to 5 years within the same company, where I had a good reputation and knew how to work the system to accommodate my injury. After 10 years, a number of promotions, great performance reviews, and satisfying work, I finally started to believe that I was employable with my disability. Talk about disability-induced imposter syndrome.
Alas, two years ago I suffered a brain injury and now need to work half-time. I’ve had to overhaul my life and job all over again. I’m creative and I love the work I do, so once again I’m figuring out what my career will look like. I have the support of my employer, my colleagues and my friends to patch something back together. But thinking about my career is still scary.
When I first got injured, I attempted to work as if I didn’t have an injury. I would struggle through pain during the week and have to rest all weekend in order to recover before Monday. This way of working meant I couldn’t do many of my hobbies or maintain as active a social life.
My neurologist made it very clear that I can’t do that with this brain injury. For the first time in over a decade, I’m making sure that a given day’s work doesn’t exacerbate my symptoms. It’s fantastic. To make it to the weekend and still be able to go out and do my hobbies is soul warming. Over my career I’ve often heard the phrase “work-life balance” – I finally understand what that is, and it will remain part of my career moving forward.
By cdp in Seattle
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