2008 Journalism Contest
2008 South Carolina Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities Journalism Contest winning essay.
Workers with Disabilities:
Talent for a Winning Team
by Anna Westbury
Dorchester Academy, St. George, SC
Carson, 4, and Madelynn, 2, fish happily in the bathtub. Their mother watches them carefully as she gives a phone interview. She has already served supper and washed the dishes and the clothes. Some days, she has worked 10+ hours as a welder. Today, this single mother trained for her next marathon. Amy Palmiero-Winters considers her life to be “just as normal as anyone else's.”1 But there is a difference. When others wake up and put on their glasses, Palmiero-Winters puts on her leg.
In April 1994 the life of this high school and college track star took a tumble. Her left leg was crushed between her Harley and a car that pulled out in front of her. After 27 unsuccessful surgeries, Palmiero-Winters’ leg was amputated. Doctors told her she would never run competitively agaIn. They were wrong.
Palmiero-Winters is back on the track. It took three years before Palmiero-Winters was able to return to athletic competition. She now trains full time as a professional athlete. She has won more than 14 marathons and triathlons since her amputation, and she has received numerous awards, including an ESPY award, the Erie Times “Female Athlete of the Year” and Runner's World “2007 Hero of Running.”
But her road to success has not been easy. Three months after her surgery, Palmiero-Winters went out for her first run. “I felt like me again,” she said. But training was difficult and painful. “If I ran hard one day, I could hardly walk the next.” When she returned to her doctor, they discovered she had a bone infection. “They had to cut two more inches off,” she said, "but I was then cleared to get a shock absorber so I was able to run.”
Palmiero-Winters had more than just physical obstacles to overcome. She had financial issues to deal with as well. “My boss told me [before the amputation] that my job would still be there after my surgery. When I was ready to go back to work, my job was terminated,” she said. She had not only lost her leg, but her source of income and insurance as well.
Palmiero-Winters had to start over alone. Because she lives in Pennsylvania, Palmiero-Winters did not have access to a rehabilitation program like South Carolina's Vocational Rehabilitation Department (SCVRD). The SCVRD helps more than 43,000 clients with disabilities each year and is known for helping them succeed.2
“I had no one to talk to or help me get back on track with my job. I went from making $20 an hour to being a janitor and making minimum wage. No one would hire an amputee. I wanted to get back to my job, because I loved what I did, and it felt bad to know that I had to start all over and find what I wanted to do with my life,” Palmiero- Winters said.
Kelly Rutherford, Area Supervisor of the Dorchester-Berkeley SCVRD, helps clients through a step-by-step process that is individually designed to fit their particular needs. “Once individuals are referred to the SCVRD and they are determined to be eligible, their SCVRD advisors develop a plan. These plans may include vocational training, counseling, job readiness training, GED classes, drug and alcohol treatment or even college classes,” Rutherford said.3 The SCVRD wants to show people with disabilities that living a normal life is possible. The department’s ultimate goal is to help workers with disabilities become successful in the workplace by helping clients overcome any barriers that they may face.
Employees of the SCVRD use success stories to help motivate new clients and businesses in the community. One of Rutherford's favorite stories is about Palmiero-Winters. “I read about Amy in Runner's WorldI am also a runnerand her story amazes and inspires me.”
Rutherford also shares the story of Dorchester-Berkeley SCVRD client Terry Currier. At the age of 22, Currier broke his neck in a diving accident, leaving him a quadriplegic. “The SCVRD helped me finish my college education. They helped me with payment for books, and they got me a computer in my house to do work on. They even arranged for someone to come to my classes and take notes for me,” Currier said.4
After receiving a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, Currier joined the team of J.K. Harris and works in the Review and Oversight Department. But Currier found he still needed help from the SCVRD. “I needed a new van to help me maintain my independence. After they helped me with vocational assistance, I was not sure if I could receive any more help,” he said.
But the SCVRD came through for Currier once again. With financial assistance from both his employer and the SCVRD, Currier was able to purchase a new van designed with a lower floor for a wheelchair, a wheelchair lift and power doors. “It came with the latest and greatest technology. It has a touch pad system for heating and air and shifting gears, and it has a joystick system that makes it easier for me to drive,” Currier said.
Palmiero-Winters has also joined the team to help others, working with AS.P.I.R.E, an organization dedicated to children who have lost limbs. “Many people do not understand that typical prosthetic legs are not made for athletic activities. AS.P.I.R.E helps children get prosthetics that are more appropriate for sports,” she said. Palmiero-Winters also works with the “A Step Ahead, Jr. Team,” using her welding skills to help make prosthetics for other amputees.
Currier and Palmiero-Winters are far from disabled. Instead, they seem enabled. “Being disabled means you can't do something. I do not know of anything I cannot do,” Palmiero-Winters said. “I would never take back my accident. If you tried to give me my leg back today, I would not take it.”
Currier and Palmiero- Winters are examples to everyone, showing that those who have disabilities also have the talents necessary to be part of a winning teamnot only in the workplace but also in the home and in the community.
Palmiero-Winters’ philosophy is for everyone: “If you try your best, you will wineven if you come in dead last.”
1. Palmiero-Winters, Amy. Phone interview. November 20, 2008.
3. Rutherford, Kelly. Phone interview. January 15, 2008.
4. Currier, Terry. Phone interview. January 19, 2007.