I feel that there is a lot of silence when it comes to having a disability while marketing yourself as a professional. The most that is acknowledged and talked about in a workplace when you have a disability is either requesting a reasonable accommodation or completing the Equal Employment Opportunity forms on an application. The general belief is not to make your disability known because of the fear that you will be judged on it.
I challenge to change that perceptive.
I have a disability. A noticeable one. I have the choice to hide it and cover it up, but I choose not to. In a weird way, showing my vulnerability can either make others either feel very comfortable with me or just the opposite, very uncomfortable. But the truth is, it’s my preference to show it. It is a part of me and after many years, I have chosen not to run from it, but rather embrace it.
I don’t remember the day that it began, but there are home video tapes of me talking as a child freely and carelessly. And then all of a sudden there are home video tapes of me trying to navigate through my words carefully. When I was a child, my speech therapists basically taught me that I needed to avoid stuttering at all costs. They meant well, but the end result of showing me how to speak in a way that avoided stuttering only led me to believe that if I showed my stuttering that I would never be successful or a good communicator. They threw fluency shaping at me and taught me various relaxation and breathing techniques. They taught me to speak with air flowing through my vocal chords so that I sounded a bit like Marilyn Monroe, who also was a person who stuttered and learned to speak that way to hide her stuttering. But they never taught me that it’s okay to show my stuttering.
As I graduated college and tried to navigate the world of interviews I was a complete wreck. I don’t think wreck is a strong of a word. Let me try “disaster”, or even better yet, “total-anxiety-ridden-and-almost-having-a-mental-meltdown-during-every-single-interview” type of description. Because what my speech therapists missed when I was growing up, was tackling the emotional side of stuttering. The fear and anxiety of showing my stuttering only led to more stuttering (oh, the irony). The truth is, I would never be able to get better control of my stutter until I actually showed the ugliness of it all. It was a scary concept but after years of putting myself into three fearful speaking situations every day and challenging my limits of what I thought I could do, it started to become easier to speak. And along the way I have learned so much about myself.
Today I am a human resources professional with ten years of experience, with my newly earned Senior in Professional Human Resources (SPHR) certification. I have always been an overachiever in terms of education and hard work, as a means to compensate for my speech. I believed that if I couldn’t speak like everyone else, at least I’ll standout by my hard work and dedication to advance my education and benefit my career and any company that I work for.
With my disability, I now view it in a positive light. For example, I know that stuttering has given me the gifts of being extremely patient, empathetic, a better listener, and yes, even a great communicator. In fact, one of my favorite parts of working in human resources is working with people, getting to know them, helping them, and making them know that they are an important integral part of the organization that I work for. I have led countless of orientations and trainings. I participate in meetings and conference calls with brokers and third party vendors. And along the way I also became a supervisor, leading a human resources team. This career is far from the realms of what I thought I could do when I was young. Now, don’t get me wrong – there are still some days that are challenging and physically tiring for me. However, every challenge creates an opportunity to gain strength.
I hope that people with disabilities do not shy away from embracing what makes them different. The world can benefit from your experience and your knowledge. You experience things that most people do not, so use those experiences to your advantage. Use them as a teaching moment. Turn your disability from a challenge to a strength. Be a trail maker for others who are following behind you. Pave the way for tolerance and acceptance in the workplace. And for the workforce of today, I challenge to you embrace others differences and to learn how to build stronger teams by hiring and embracing a diverse environment. Learn to judge on the ability, not the disability. And finally, help foster an environment where disabilities and differences are accepted and welcomed for future generations to come.
Haley Mitchem is a Human Resources professional, living and working in the greater Washington, DC area. This article was originally posted on LinkedIn – https://tinyurl.com/LinkedInHaley.