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Recently, Pinnacle’s consulting actuaries met for an annual meeting,
held this year in breathtaking Vancouver, British Columbia.
Beyond the usual continuing education content, team-building
and social time (particularly important in a remote work environment!), I got a
vivid reminder about what a truly inclusive environment means for employees
with disabilities – those seen and unseen.
For one of the meeting’s afternoon activities, we went to
Capilano Suspension Bridge Park (www.capbridge.com). If you’ve never been, the
main attraction is an amazing cable-suspension bridge 450 feet long and hanging
230 feet above the Capilano River. At the park, there are also seven
footbridges that are more than 100 feet above the forest floor, and a cliff-walk
along a granite precipice.
The suspension bridge is dramatic and beautiful and a remarkable
piece of engineering. But because it is a cable footbridge over a tall canyon,
it inherently sways and reels side-to-side. More than a little. Quite a bit in
fact. At any given time, there are scores of visitors walking across it. The
wind, as well as teenagers working to get it to swing more dramatically, contributed
more than their fair share to the bridge’s impressive bit of physics – and,
significantly, my wariness about the whole experience.
You see, I have a genetic version of peripheral neuropathy
called Charcot-Marie Tooth (CMT). CMT results in me having little or no
sensation below my knees. This results in uneven sidewalks or stairs being very
difficult for me to negotiate safely. I’ve literally tripped at the edge of rugs.
Given my CMT, the idea of walking across a swaying bridge with a moving target
for a floor had me extremely apprehensive.
This felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I can say
with pride, that with CMT, I often have to overcome physical impediments that
others take for granted. So, I was determined to get across this bridge.
I let all the other Pinnacle consultants go across the
bridge before I even tried. As I gingerly went across the bridge, step-by-precise-step,
right hand like a vise grip on the handrail, I got more than a few curious
glances. I distinctly saw looks and heard thoughts like, “Why is this guy
struggling with this so much?”, “He must really be scared of heights”, and “He
doesn’t look that old.” I even heard some laughs from kids as they ran
It struck me in that quite scary moment that this must be what
people with hidden disabilities have to deal with all the time.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability
quite broadly as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially
limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such an impairment;
or is regarded as having such an impairment."
By the ADA’s language and by the nature of many
disabilities, the struggles and challenges of individuals are not always immediately
obvious or visible to anyone else.
Individuals dealing with these hidden disabilities face
reactions quite similar to what I experienced on the bridge, if often more
direct and hurtful. They have the effect of creating more impediments to
navigating an unaccommodating and, occasionally, thoughtless world. At one
point, we all may have heard (or perhaps, thought?), “Why does he need that
handicapped parking space? He looks fine,” or “Why do they get more breaks than
everyone else?”, or “Why is she excused from this activity when the rest of us
have to do it?”
All of us have struggles, some visible, some hidden. With an
employer’s perspective, it reminds me to be mindful, first and foremost. That
is, to be aware, and most importantly, to keep open lines of communication that
can make a difference for those managing their struggles – at all levels of the
organization. (Especially true with ensuring reasonable accommodations. It
gives me pride to say that Pinnacle knew we had some folks that would struggle
with the bridge activity and had discussed and planned alternatives.)
I really like an anonymous poem that says:
Not all scars show,
Not all wounds heal,
Often we don’t see
The pain someone feels
When dealing with hidden disabilities, communication and
empathy will go a long, long way.
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