Name and where you work / how you spend your time
Megan Hart, Director of Tennessee Disability Pathfinder at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center
Tell me about yourself.
Like many women my age, I am a daughter, sister, sister-in-law, aunt, friend, neighbor, and colleague. I also happen to have a disability. My loving parents, sister, and brother welcomed me into the world ten minutes after my twin brother was born. However, people have a hard time believing we are twins because he is average height and I am a little person. Despite my short stature and respiratory concerns, I was a typical child until the age of five. Due to the type of little person that I am, doctors informed my parents that I needed to have surgery on my spinal cord to prevent future complications. As a result of mistakes made during the operation, I woke up paralyzed from the neck down. After their initial reactions, my parents were determined not to allow my disability to dominate our family.
As in any person’s life, there have been many challenges and triumphs. One of my first disability-related triumphs occurred when occupational therapists taught me to write, draw, paint, type, etc. using instruments in my mouth. This significant accomplishment laid the foundation for my future capabilities and achievements. I was fortunate to attend public school in inclusive classrooms with teachers and aides that also fostered my independence and drive to reach my full potential. They were supportive in providing me the accommodations that I needed while also holding me accountable to the same expectations as my peers. Throughout my education, teachers would offer me additional accommodations, such as dictating assignments or taking exams orally that I declined because I was comfortable writing for myself and did not want to do things differently than my classmates. I have never been one to do things the way others think may be easier. For example, others may have thought it would have been easier for me to stay home to attend college or at least choose a place that it is fully accessible. No, not me.
Instead, I decided to move from Arizona to Tennessee, my family’s home state, to attend Sewanee: The University of the South. As many Freshmen experience, it was not an easy adjustment, but it turned out to be a wonderful four-year experience. The administration and faculty were extremely supportive and accommodating of my needs as a person with a disability. I am proud of the accessibility improvements I played a role in making. Friendships with typical peers were and continue to be an important part of my life by often serving as a source for natural supports. Based on the ongoing friendships I share with college peers, the great experiences we shared and the valuable education I received, I am so grateful that I followed my heart and disregarded others who questioned my decision. Little did I know at the time, it would lead me to where I am today.
After graduating from Sewanee with a B.A. in Psychology, I landed my first job in the disability field in Nashville. Fortunately, my parents were happy to return to Tennessee and followed me to Nashville. Since then, my two brothers have moved here as well and have their own families while my sister remains in Arizona. Since working at the Technology Access Center (TAC), I have earned an M.Ed. in Counseling from Peabody College at Vanderbilt and served as Funding Specialist at Tennessee Technology Access Program. I eventually found my way to Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, where I marked my 10th anniversary in July.
What has your experience been in the workplace as a person with a disability?
As a person with a disability, it has been a natural fit for me to work in the disability field. I was very fortunate when the late Bob Kibler, former Executive Director of Technology Access Center, offered me a job immediately following my interview. It could not have been more perfect for me. It was a valuable professional and personal learning experience for me, especially since my colleagues were experts in assistive technology and job accommodations. Bob was only the first of many great employers who have recognized the value of my knowledge, skills and talents as an employee. Although I consider myself to be 95% self-sufficient at work, I have also been fortunate to work with supportive colleagues who are willing to assist me with certain needs, such as feeding me lunch and managing papers. In addition to the supportive environment, it is rewarding to work among numerous professionals dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities, so others like me can have the same opportunities that I have had.
As you know, we're focusing on disability etiquette for this article series. After looking at the brochure we sent, is there an area that you feel strongly about or identify with?
I identify most with these five tips for meeting a person with a disability:
1. A handshake is NOT a standard greeting for everyone. As a person who cannot shake hands, I have encountered this awkward situation numerous times. I consider it more awkward for the person trying to shake my hand than for me personally. I try to ease their embarrassment by smiling and inviting them to touch my hand.
2. Speak directly to the person with a disability. It seems like common sense, but since it’s not always common practice, it serves as another important tip. I have often encountered situations in which someone asks the person with me a question about myself instead of asking me directly. Despite the initial annoyance, it gives me great satisfaction to serve as a learning experience for them when I respond. I hope that it serves as a teachable moment for them to interact directly with people who have disabilities in the future.
3. Treat adults as adults. Don’t patronize or talk down to people with disabilities. Likewise, don’t lavish praise on a person with a disability for having the “courage” to overcome a disability. People’s communication with and about others significantly effects individuals and our entire society. Not treating adults with disabilities as adults can make it difficult for us to consider ourselves as equals and for others to see us as equals. This contributes to the disparities in education, employment, healthcare, and other aspects of life that people with disabilities may experience.
4. It is okay to use common expressions like “see you soon” or “I’d better be running along.” As a person who uses a wheelchair, I always say that I enjoy taking walks in my neighborhood. I realize that I am not technically walking, but it’s much more natural to say compared to driving my power wheelchair through the neighborhood. I also consider it to be the same experience as someone who is literally taking a walk. I think it’s safe for me to speak for others with disabilities in assuring people that we are not offended by common expressions that do not match with our physical abilities. We would much rather people feel comfortable communicating naturally.
5. Relax. We all make mistakes. It can quickly become overwhelming trying to follow the “do’s and don’ts” for interacting with people who have disabilities, so it’s most important for people to remember this tip. Afterall, people with disabilities are people. We want interactions with others to be natural. The last thing we want is for people to be so concerned about saying or doing something that offends us that they become hesitant of interacting at all.
What would you want people who don't have your same experience with disability in the workplace to know?
We have more in common than our differences. I encourage anyone who is considering hiring someone with a disability to treat that person the same as you would any other candidate. Don’t hire the person because he or she has a disability and it’s the “right thing to do,” and don’t dismiss the person because he or she may need certain accommodations to effectively perform the job. Instead, consider the candidate’s qualifications to determine if he or she is a good fit for the position regardless of the disability. If the person with a disability is an employee or colleague, then treat that person as one would treat a person without a disability in that same position.