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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Important Career Lessons My Disability Forced Me to Learn Faster Than Everyone Else

I’m often asked if I would change my disability if I had the chance, and my answer is always a hard no! My disability is part of my story, a story that influences every decision I make and how I see the world. I’ll never escape it—and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, when it comes to employment, I consider myself at an advantage. I’ve learned important lessons first-hand that might never have surfaced if I didn’t have Cerebral Palsy.

These lessons, in and of themselves, are nothing new, but when you think about how you can apply them to your career, and not just use them as general life guidelines, they become game-changers.

1. Knowledge Is Power

Arming yourself with the tools you need to succeed in your career is vital. As an employee who’s disabled, it’s important to understand your rights. Whether your disability is marked by a physical impairment, the required use of a wheelchair, or an invisible limitation, you are protected under certain laws.

For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects those with a disability from discrimination within the workforce. You are protected during the interview process and during your term of service with the company under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC. If I ever feel I am being unfairly questioned during an interview about my disability, or I’m not accommodated at work appropriately, I know I have the option to file a claim with the government for support.

Assuming that others may discriminate against me may sound overly cynical, but I’ve actually found it be both proactive and powerful. The cards that I’ve been dealt are mine and mine only, and it’s up to me to champion my causes and needs. This disability often propels people to doubt my abilities to perform well, but that’s simply not the case. By addressing these issues head on, I’m able to eliminate much of the drama upfront.

The truth is that no one but you can take credit for your successes or failures. Yes, establishing meaningful connections with others or taking advantage of a lucky break can help you climb the career ladder, but the desire to climb that ladder in the first place starts with you. You need to be your own advocate in life.

2. You Are Who Your Network Is

As I navigated what is arguably the scariest environment imaginable—middle school—I suffered many harsh realities. One was that my best friend, Christina, wasn’t really a “true” friend if she couldn’t accept my certain limitations. It was clear she was embarrassed by me, and when I got picked last in gym class by my own friends with Christina at the helm, I was devastated.

Later, as I cried to my mom, she reminded me to choose my inner circle of friends more wisely. I realized that I needed to surround myself with people of share similar values who will truly celebrate my strengths, accept my shortcomings, and never shun me. When it time for me to enter the real world, this same lesson helped me grow and challenge myself, both personally and professionally.

Take my advice and surround yourself with individuals who are good and compassionate, and who have similar ideas about success. They don’t need to share the exact same mindset though. People who challenge your point of view and engage you in healthy debates without confirming to the confirmation bias can be beneficial to you throughout our career. If every idea you propose is met with overwhelming support, it’s hard to know whether the people around you truly think it’s an awesome idea, or if they’re just too afraid to disagree with you.

Avoid this type of paralyzing scenario by creating a network of people who’ll expand your horizons and empower you on your path to success, but who’ll also dissent and express alternate points of view. I dub this task “building your personal board of advisors.” Your board may be composed of mentors in your field, other successful people, and colleagues who bring something different to the table than you do—ultimately, helping you grow in your career and reach your goals.

3. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Having a noticeable disability is often humbling. There are days where I feel like a failure, completely rejected by the outside world. Walking down the sidewalk can be severely demoralizing when it feels like everyone is staring at you with a face that screams “That’s weird, but I’m going to pretend not to look.” In these moments, when I don’t feel like a winner, I realize resilience is power. Allow any moments of sadness or discomfort to be motivating factors that influence how you tackle rejection moving forward.

Trying to find the right job is also humbling. We spend all that time completing applications, customizing cover letters, and following up with the important people, only to get a rejection email days later. Instead of slamming the computer closed in frustration, I’ve learned to turn this rejection into a profitable learning experience.

Rely on your aforementioned board of advisors for follow-up information. Invite a few of your mentors in this particular field to coffee dates and ask what you can do to be successful in these types of roles moving forward. Should I work on a certain technical skill before applying again? What’s the best piece of advice you can give to someone just starting out in this field? Then, actually listen and consider their answers.

Learning how to receive constructive criticism is a noble trait in the workplace. A willingness to continually improve and adapt to changes can be the difference between a stagnant or emergent career.

Embracing, overcoming, and succeeding in life with a disability takes work. But so does molding a meaningful career. The key is to modify your mindset, because a positive attitude and a drive to continually improve your situation will help you tremendously. Having this innate will to never give up has made me feel successful.

As I continue to build my own business, I constantly lean on my network for advice, support, and constructive criticism that helps me to keep pushing forward during uncertain times. So instead of wishing for a better life story, let’s take control of the one we have and make the best of it—who knows where it can take you.

Photo of woman focused courtesy of Morsa Images/Getty Images.

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