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When a Disability Is Just an Ability in Disguise

At Seuss Recruitment, one of the things that gets us most excited about pharma recruitment is when we see life-sciences candidates who have faced significant challenges and use these challenges to propel themselves into strong positions with forward-thinking companies. This is why we typically take a holistic, 360-degree view of the candidates we work with, focusing on digging beneath the surface to learn their whole story. We believe that unique and more challenging experiences can make people more resilient, give them a better attitude and inspire more dedication to thinking outside the box to excel in the workplace.

One of our readers noticed this focus and reached out to us with her own story of turning adversity into success. She’s found that many pharmaceutical companies and CROs do not view the “whole” person when they consider candidates, but she thrived (and helped her employer thrive) when she found an employer that did. She’s agreed to share her story here.

Ability vs Disability

As a disabled woman I have strong views on disability and ability. I’d like to see people start using the term “differently abled” more, showing understanding that we are just humans like everyone else, working through our own unique challenges with our own unique set of insights and abilities.

One of my favourite stories is about a street sweeper working outside an office building, who is approached by a gentleman who asks what the sweeper is doing. The sweeper replies, “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build St. Paul’s Cathedral.” I believe everyone capable of working has unique abilities that can lead to their own and their employer’s success – provided they find the right role.  The prime intersection of a company’s needs with their personality and experience. There is no point asking a garrulous salesperson to stare at numbers on a computer all day, or asking an IT guru to sit answering phones in a call centre – they will be unhappy and, therefore, unproductive.

In a workplace we, the “differently abled,” can and do excel, often all the more for our experiences. We know what it is like to constantly have to fight and navigate barriers; every day is a challenge that we are committed to overcoming. Our tenacity and drive makes us often far more committed than many so-called “normal” people, as we are grateful to have a job and want to show how much we can contribute to our teams and the success of our organizations.

Understanding Disability

One of the greatest struggles I’ve faced in my physical and mental disability is that it’s not always visible. In addition to osteoarthritis in my back and multiple old fractures, I have panic disorder and severe anxiety in addition to social phobia. Being in crowds of people makes my body physically shut down – and much as I would like to, I can’t do anything about it. This has, for example, significantly affected my ability to commute by metro, train, bus or any way other than car. A journey on public transport is not only often very physically painful to me, but being surrounded by people leads to mental and physical exhaustion. When I was forced to work in offices, I was late frequently, often having to get off the train several times to be ill. Then, once I reached the office, I was physically and mentally uncomfortable for eight hours a day.

But, back in the 1990s, there was no corporate understanding of panic disorder. People were expected to work the same hours in the same location, period. I noticed that I was doing my best and most productive work after everyone else had left the office. But, because I was regularly late, I was considered to be not as good as my co-workers, despite working “no slower than anyone else” and my work quality being “no worse than any one else’s” (to quote one employer – I still have the letter, but I wish they had said “on a par” with everyone else, as they still turned the evaluation into a negative).

Anything for a Job

Still, I needed to live. And not just live – I wanted to thrive. So I engineered my CV to promote myself for all manner of decently paid jobs to which I was wholly unsuited. I can talk the talk, so I would even get them. However, as I wasn’t then looking much farther than the bottom line, I wasn’t finding jobs where my unique personality and set of experiences fit or were understood and accepted, and I never managed to stick to any of them very long. Three times, I was fired for being sick with mental illness, and in other instances I was so anxious that, rather than get sacked, I quit. I would always brush myself off and find something else, temping and freelancing at the same time.

But despite my physical and mental unease, I was picking up new skills along the way. I learned from every organization I worked for, and I grew as a person. My emotional intelligence soared. I learned to always give praise when it is due, after seeing how I myself flourished and produced better results when my accomplishments and hard work were acknowledged. I turned my personal insights into an advantage in working with other people, always finding a positive in every situation, as people genuinely work better if, instead of being shown what they are doing “wrong,” they are praised for what they are doing well, encouraged and given better direction in areas where improvement is needed.

I also realized that, in my case, anxiety and poor performance after joining a new company was often due to a lack of understanding of my role and the expectations – and my timidity in asking questions when I didn’t understand. Never again: I am now a permanent question mark!

However, there was still one key thing missing in my career: balance. I needed to not only find a job that I could do, but one that I would enjoy. Then persuade the employer to allow me to work from home full time…

The Home Advantage

The most important thing when recruiting for a role is to look at the whole person: what they enjoy, what they excel at, but also what they can physically and mentally cope with. Workplaces can be adapted to physical and mental needs, and working from home can enable many people who would not be able to work in an office contribute to global businesses. Sadly, many businesses still see working from home as a “perk,” something that has to be hard won, thinking that “working from home” means “slacking” or “taking the day off.” The opposite is true: in the vast majority of cases, I see that people who work from home work more efficiently than those in the office because of fewer distractions and less time spent commuting and casually chatting.

I have been lucky; I now work for a fabulous employer (a CRO) for which home-working is the norm. I am now excelling in a management role that is a great fit, within a supportive and fun team. I excel because of my insight into factors impacting my team’s motivation and performance, even when issues have not been directly raised. This allows me to get a head start working on measures to improve sticky situations and prevent exacerbation of any issues. This reassures my team, enhances my strong bond with them and really convinces them that I am here to support their career-development plan, one that takes their whole life into account, rather than the narrow confines of the workplace. 

None of my clients or colleagues have any idea that I am mentally and physically disabled. They just see me as a highly proactive, valuable colleague. I meet and exceed my targets, I build strong relationships with my peers and clients and, most of all, people trust me. They respect my professionalism and my willingness to volunteer for any project, my genuine offers to help others and the fact that I will turn my hand to anything to make this team, department and corporation a success. As a worker bee I can function, but as a manager I excel, solely because of my challenging experiences.

This is something else my clients and colleagues might not realize: that my success is due to all the knocks and challenges I have had to face over the years. I have learned much more than if I had had an easy life. I know what I need to motivate me, and what demotivates me. Most of all, I know that it is down to me to learn what I need to develop and truly thrive.

Seuss Recruitment sincerely and deeply thanks the contributor of this post, and welcomes more like it. If there is a career-related issue that you want us to explore and write about, please send us a message!

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