Excelling in the Workplace: My Journey
I’ll never forget the day that shaped the rest of my life. Having just ended my junior year at Ramapo College, I was home enjoying the beautiful May afternoon. The year was 1988, seven years since an auto accident had left me a quadriplegic. Suddenly, the phone rang. I heard the voice of the public relations manager from the New Jersey Nets, with whom I had interviewed a few weeks prior. Excitement and relief washed over me as he said that I was chosen to intern with the club that summer.
The internship would give me work experience to help me choose my path to a fulfilling career. Although the internship was unpaid, I was thrilled to face the challenges ahead of me.
But I felt some pangs of self-doubt as well. I was still adjusting to living life as a person in a wheelchair and all the inherent challenges—physical, emotional, and societal—that come with it.
This was prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which set guidelines for equal access to nearly everything, including parking, employment, and workplace accommodations. I was venturing into the unknown. I questioned: Would I be able to handle the tasks and physical aspects of the job? Would fellow employees treat me fairly? Was there a ‘ceiling’ to any possible advancement due to my disability?
I went in with a plan—be myself and approach this job, and any others that followed, by working hard and proving that I could perform the job, disability or not. Equally important, I wanted everyone to feel at ease. Let’s face it, at that time, not many people with disabilities were in the workplace, so some co-workers would likely be uncomfortable with my presence.
I decided to use a bit of humor to let my co-workers know that I was comfortable in my own skin and that it was okay to treat me as an equal. I did not consider myself a person with a disability employed by a professional sports team. No, I was just like everyone in that office. My purpose was to learn the ropes of the career I had chosen in order to earn a wage of my own.
That initial internship stretched into working games during the basketball season, where I was introduced to a wider group of people. After another high profile internship with a major local television station, I was convinced that I had found the path that my career and life should take.
Soon, I landed an entry level job in the box office at the Meadowlands Sports Complex. Although I didn’t consider it to be an optimal position, I kept plugging away to improve my visibility. I worked hard and made myself available for anything that my superiors requested of me.
This was my chance to change the perceptions about people with disabilities in the workplace and, specifically, about my abilities. I could enlighten people that I was more than capable of doing the job, disability or no disability.
The best compliment anyone could ever give me is that they do not see me as a person who uses a wheelchair. Seeing me as a fellow worker or their boss was a major breakthrough because they were listening to what I had to say, not where I was saying it from.
One important factor in developing good working relationships is to be an exemplary employee. If you need to seek some kind of accommodation, being an excellent employee and having earned the trust of your superiors makes asking for assistance easier. Speaking from experience, I cannot stress enough how vital this trust is to healthy working relationships.
Because of my determination and the open-mindedness of management, I was able to work my way up the organizational ladder—becoming the ADA Manager at the Meadowlands. I am proud to say that for nearly 25 years, I had a career that I loved, which gave me a sense of self-worth, enhanced my quality of life, and enabled me to support my wife and son.
Although I’m now retired, my many friends and warm memories will be with me forever. Through a process of constant learning and teaching, I showed that all people with disabilities want a fair chance … a fair chance to show that given a level playing field, they can perform as well as anyone else, and even excel, in the workplace.
Michael Smith, injured in an auto accident in 1981 at the age of 17, went on to become the ADA Manager of the Meadowlands Sports Complex. He is an ardent speaker and writer on living with spinal cord injury and other disabilities. Michael is a member of numerous boards and committees that are dedicated to improving accessibility and quality of life for people with disabilities. He currently lives in Waldwick, New Jersey with his wife, Angela, and son, Luke.