In September, I had the pleasure of sailing on board a universally accessible 60-foot catamaran that docked in Annapolis, Maryland, as part of its journey along the east coast to honor this summer’s 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was truly a delight, especially when I got to take a turn at the helm. I grew up sailing with my family and have been fortunate to continue doing so since my spinal cord injury 20 years ago — but not like this!
Since my accident, I have used a wheelchair for mobility. But my disability is far from the only thing that defines me. I’m also a public servant, advocate and federal agency leader. I’m a Cornell and Georgetown alumna. I’m a wife, sister, daughter, aunt, dog lover, and sports and outdoor enthusiast. In addition to sailing, I’ve been skiing, parasailing, hang gliding and zip lining. I’ve also taken flying lessons.
It’s not just the thrill of these adventures that attracts me, but the thrill of doing them alongside my friends and family members without disabilities. After my accident, I was determined to continue doing the things I love, including socially and recreationally. It took effort, because people sometimes saw only my disability. But an active lifestyle was an essential part of who I was — and who I remain today.
If you talk to other people with disabilities, they’ll likely tell you the same thing. Their disability is undoubtedly part of them, but not all of them. That’s the crux of this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month theme, “My Disability is One Part of Who I Am.” This simple yet significant message encapsulates that people with disabilities are just that — people. And like all people, we are the sum of many parts, including our work experiences.
I was fortunate to receive this message loud and clear shortly after acquiring my disability. I was an MBA student and intern at Anheuser Busch at the time, and while I was recovering in the rehabilitation center, the company’s executive vice president came to visit and assured me there would always be a place for me when I was ready to return to work.
Although I ultimately followed a different path, the sentiment significantly influenced my career going forward. It raised expectations. It drove home that while my disability was now a part of me, it was not the “all of me.” My work was still central to my identity. Since that time, I’ve endeavored to pay the message forward through public service.
Today, along with my colleagues at the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, I work to raise expectations among people with disabilities and their families, educators and service providers, and the employers who stand to benefit from their skills and talents. After all, inclusive workplaces are stronger workplaces, and disability is an important perspective to have on crew. Held each October, NDEAM is a key part of our efforts, a time to both celebrate the diverse contributions of America’s workers with disabilities and chart a course for increased inclusion.
I’m used to sailing a 20-footer with my family, so it was quite different to be behind the wheel of such a large vessel last week, with all of its sophisticated screens and displays. But it felt great to be on an even keel, as part of a team of people both with and without disabilities. In ODEP, we work each day to ensure more people with disabilities have the opportunity to experience that thrill.
NDEAM is led at the national level by ODEP, but its true spirit lies in the many creative events and activities that take place at the grassroots level across the nation each year. For more information about NDEAM, including specific ideas for how different types of organizations can participate, visit www.dol.gov/NDEAM.
Jennifer Sheehy is the deputy assistant secretary of labor for disability employment.