I spoke with paraplegics and quadriplegics who worked in the same job or field for over 20 years to see how they did it — and to look for any unifying traits and similar approaches. Some of what I found was expected: most were confident, had degrees in their fields of employment and fearlessly jumped into their work. Less expected, most said they had little difficulty finding jobs and keeping them. Given that employment levels hover between 30 percent for quads and 40 percent for paras, this was surprising. I wondered if this was attributable to youthful naiveté or good luck, but then I saw the key was their passion. Not just a passion for working — that always helps — but a passion for their specific field, be it teaching, engineering or anything else.
The Police Man
When a car hit David Estrada on his motorcycle in 1995, it left him a T3 para and ended his law enforcement career before he could graduate from the academy. But while he was in rehab, the chief of the Boston Police Department visited and assured him he would have a job when he was ready. A year later Estrada became a 911 operator for the department. From there he moved on to the Office of the Police Commissioner and became the department’s media liaison. Today, in addition to being a BPD spokesman, he manages its website, Facebook page and Twitter account.
As if that isn’t enough, in his capacity as recruiter and coordinator for Athletes with Disabilities for the Boston Athletic Association, he recruited and coordinated international wheelchair racers for the Boston Marathon and other races. When the bomb went off in the 2013 marathon, Estrada was about 300 yards from the finish line. He quickly sprang into action, gathering information on the bombings for the BPD and checking on all the international wheelchair racers.
While working full-time for BPD, Estrada also earned a law degree and began serving as a peer mentor at Spaulding Rehab Network. His involvement with peer mentoring helped lead him to becoming the executive director of the Boston chapter of the NSCIA (now United Spinal).
“I like being busy,” he says. “I feel very fortunate to have the function that I do as a para, as well as a job I enjoy that gives my life meaning and purpose.” He makes a point of balancing his personal and professional obligations. “I don’t use a lot of vacation days in big chunks, but I do take some occasional time off to spend with my wife and daughter, and I’m home every weekend.”
Somehow, he makes it all work. When he stepped down from his post at NSCIA in 2013, he accepted the position of program manager for Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital’s Model Systems grant, in addition to working with Spaulding’s exercise rowing program. (see NEW MOBILITY, Sept. 2013).
Estrada has now worked the equivalent of two full-time jobs for 12 years. Did I mention he also has a real estate license and helps people find accessible housing?
“I realize not everyone is able to work, but I think if you can work, you should,” Estrada says. “It’s an opportunity to do something meaningful.”
The Policy Wonk
For the past 20 years Jo Donlin has worked in public policy communications for the state of Colorado. “I like what I do, as it allows me to use my intellect and critical thinking skills as well as a good deal of collaboration with others. I also get to teach a lot of people. It’s a good living,” says Donlin, a C5-6 quad since a 1990 diving accident.
It also makes for long and expensive days, as Donlin, 49, requires help with all transfers and foots the bill for her attendant care. Up at 5:15 to be at work by 9 a.m., she’s in bed by 8:30 or 9 p.m., with the lights off by 10.
Over the years Donlin has worked with the media, lobbied, analyzed policy, conducted research and translated a great deal of legalese into everyday English. Her first policy work was as a college intern with the Wyoming legislature in 1989. “Right now, I’m doing a lot of stakeholder engagement and outreach, writing and website work,” she says. “In the process, I teach a great many people.”
She enjoys working with colleagues and building partnerships, and finds that in the process she challenges perceptions of what wheelchair users are capable of. “People aren’t used to seeing quads out doing what I do, so I’m dealing with a lot of assumptions,” she says. “Work enhances my life and provides a paycheck for attendant care, medical bills, insurance and mortgage.”
Is it hard?
“I’ve paid a price,” she admits. “About five years ago I went from full-time to three-quarter time, though in my context it’s full-time. I’m absolutely exhausted.”
Joe Jeremias is easy to like. He’s genuinely humble, straightforward and thrives on self-deprecating humor, the darker the better.
He joined the SCI club 30 years ago at 16, when a bike-car collision resulted in a C6-7 injury. Now 46, Jeremias has been a high school English teacher for the past 22 years. He lives in West Hempstead, New York, on Long Island, with his wife Chris, also a teacher, and his 12-year-old son, Daniel.
About five years ago he began teaching English to juniors and seniors at Nike Alternative, a high school for at-risk students. “I’m working with kids who really need help, they’re probably the bottom 5-10 percent,” he says. “They need extra attention, and I have an opportunity to show them they can succeed. This is the most difficult teaching I’ve done, and also the most rewarding.”
His passion is obvious as he explains what he loves about his job. “I have more freedom to do what I want and be creative, and I can teach the kids where they’re at. I feel like I’m treated as a professional,” he says. “I really enjoy it.”
The job is more than just teaching English, he explained. “Sometimes it feels like triage. Some kids are homeless, others are living in dysfunctional families. They might show up after being kicked out of the house. I listen and go from there.”
Does the wheelchair get in the way?
“Yeah, same as any other job, but I’m also able to incorporate the chair into the teaching, either with humor — ‘Don’t make me get out of this chair’ — or as a way to connect, with empathy and understanding, ‘Look, I’ve gone through stuff, too. Maybe not your stuff, but stuff.’”
Like Estrada, Jeremias strives to find the right balance between personal and professional, although his SCI makes it more difficult. “I’d like to be more physically active, but it’s hard to find the time for self-care,” he says.
But the pleasure derived from working outweighs any struggles. “Working is a good thing,” he says. “I’m proud to be working every day … I like being a wheelchair ambassador to the world.”
The Defense Contractor
“We’re built to work,” says Kevin Wolitzky, about Raytheon Corporation, the U.S. government defense contractor that’s employed him for over 21 years. As a systems engineer, his work is classified, so he can’t divulge any details of exactly what he does, other than his work provides help to troops worldwide.
Wolitzky was an exceptional high school athlete and attended college on an athletic scholarship. About halfway through the fall term, during a baseball team initiation, a head-first slide into a 6-inch-deep mud pit made him a C5 quad. “I took too steep an angle and snapped my neck,” he recalled. “I immediately lost sensation and knew what happened.”
He quickly returned to school following rehab and became employed less than a month after he started looking. “I began to realize working was possible once I was able to use a computer,” he says. The job also offered some great fringe benefits: Not long after starting, a coworker and fellow wheeler introduced him to Leda, another employee, who eventually became his wife, and now they have three daughters.
Working 40 hours a week is a challenge for Wolitzky. Days begin at either 6 or 7 a.m., when his attendant arrives, allowing him to be on the job between 8 and 9. But it’s worth it. “I’m confident that I’m contributing. I provide a service to my employer and the government, just like any other employee. I’ve developed meaningful relationships and friendships with my coworkers,” he says. “Work provides me with mental stimulation and a chance to use my brain.”
When she realized what life could be like as a wheelchair user, Carol Hickey smuggled a lightweight chair into her native Ireland via a food truck in order to avoid a 34 percent tax. With that act, the then-19-year-old started herself down a path that led to her current job as a territory manager for the complex rehab technology provider Numotion, responsible for Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama.
“I’m a firm believer that everyone has a right to a good chair,” says Hickey, whose job entails educating both professionals and consumers. “My work affords me the satisfaction of giving people options and freedom through mobility.”
Hickey grew up in Ireland, where at age 16 she was hit by an 18-wheeler, leaving her with a T4 SCI. “I had no rights, no opportunities [as a disabled person] in Ireland, and I was determined to obtain freedom and independence,” she says. “I felt like a second-class citizen there. I couldn’t live like that.”
As a child she always dreamed of flying and eventually began doing so using gliders. She visited Pennsylvania in 1990 to fly gliders as part of the Freedom’s Wings program and then managed to win a green card in the lottery in 1993. She says she immigrated for independence, the right to be equal.
Settling in Atlanta, she quickly went about establishing her new life. She worked for the Paralympic Organizing Committee for two years before accepting a position as a program manager for an outreach program educating kids about the Paralympics. In 1998 she began working for a medical company that eventually was purchased by Numotion.
Despite her 34 years on wheels, Hickey still relishes being employed. “I find it very positive and healthy. Even though everything takes longer, I can’t imagine not working. It enhances my life and gives me satisfaction every day that I’m helping people,” she says. “In Ireland I had no rights and was told I would never do things. Now I do them. Everyone should have options. I see myself as equal now, and no longer feel like a second-class citizen.”