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Balancing Vigor and Vulnerability as a Manager With a Disability

“Thank you”, I grumble with my head down. Yet another person is holding the door for me as I clank my walker through a door. The door is spring loaded and wants to close as I clamber through.

Usually, I open the door, let my walker act as a wedge, and then give the door another shove and scoot through. I refuse to use the handicap button to open the door, even though I see able-bodied people use it all the time.

I have been using a walker for a couple of months.  I need a new knee and I won’t have the knee replacement surgery until late April. In the meantime, I am cranky due to my limited mobility. A year ago I was volunteering on an ambulance service, hefting patients onto cots and carrying heavy bags of gear in each hand.

Today, I’m wrestling with a walker – and with questions about visiting new clients. Does it really project the right image for a technology enabled service company to have a CEO using grandma’s walker?  

Managing a Health Condition at Work

There are new employees who only know me with a walker. I tell every new employee, “I am getting a new knee in April.” I’m telling them for my own benefit more than theirs. It’s tough to go from active and self-reliant to (again, begrudgingly) needing help with little things from time to time.

People offer assistance every day. They are so polite and accommodating, and they genuinely want to help me. I thank them for their help, but what I really want to say is, “I’ve got it. Please get out of my way.”  

Then there is the matter of flying.  I do not take the electric carts from gate to gate. I have figured out that I need to take advantage of early boarding. I need to collapse the walker and use the back of the seats for support. It is easier for all if there are fewer people on the plane when I am getting on or off.

But this strategy took some time to develop, much like the strategies we put together for clients. Nothing is cookie-cutter; I couldn’t just copy what I’d seen other people who have disabilities doing. I had to forge a plan that works best for me, using what I have and bringing in outside-the-box thinking when it is needed.

I put myself through the ringer of questions, much like a project discovery phase. Do I cut back on travel? Do I meet clients for the first time hobbling around with a walker? Do I visit potential clients to close sales in my current state, or send a designee?

I believe in the power of first impressions, and I am reluctant to have my first meetings with people like this when, if all goes well, I will be bipedal in two months.

Vulnerability Leads to Technological Advancement

The truth is, this is one of few times in my life I have felt vulnerable. I have not been writing for a while because I have been wrestling with how I manage a technology company while working through the changes associated with managing a visible disability.

However, when I thought long and hard on it, technology is what will get me back to fully operational. The top of my tibia is completely worn away, and the traditional knee structure is gone. But the new knee will be a biomedical marvel. The surgeon will implant the new knee and, within a few hours after surgery, will have me up and walking on it. It’s truly amazing.

Without a need, there is no reason for technology. Without grinding away my tibia over time, I wouldn’t have undergone this humbling and introspective health journey. And without a need for data-driven sales processes, I wouldn’t have a base of clients to visit. Ultimately, everything comes full circle.

My knee hurts now, even as I use a walker to take off some of the weight. I’m exhausted by the end of the day, but I know it’s temporary. And I know that is a blessing. So, for now, I am going to accept that my “normal” is currently different. I am going to smile and explain my situation to inquisitive eyes and ears. I am not going to worry what they think of my current state, because the fire that helps guide this company is still there and will continue to be, new knee or otherwise.

Most importantly, I’m going to get back into the habit of writing. Everyone has stories to tell through data, through change, and through life experiences. My stories – and yours – can potentially help others get where they need to go, in their own way.