2010 Journalism Contest
2010 South Carolina Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities Journalism Contest winning essay.
Expectation + opportunity = full participation
by Taylor Addison
Bishop England High School, Charleston, SC
Paul Barrera refuses to get a disabled parking plate or placard.
“I never let it stop me,” he says. “I never let it get me down.”
On Dec. 7, 1988, Mr. Barrera, then a 26-year-old civil engineer, was installing an air pollution control scrubber at a job site in Virginia when he was blind-sided by a forklift. Panicking, the forklift driver immediately slammed on the brakes. He had not seen Mr. Barrera, whose leg was caught between the forklift’s wheel and steel fender. After many surgeries, the doctors decided that no hope remained and amputated Mr. Barrera’s leg.
Mr. Barrera, on the other hand, was full of hope for his future.
Mr. Barrera has made great personal and business strides since first learning the basics of walking with a prosthetic leg. More than two decades after the accident, Mr. Barrera is still focusing on “accepting what is given and not looking back.”1
This mantra has led him to success both in his personal life and in the working world. Today Mr. Barrera works as a sales manager for the Mt. Pleasant, SC, branch of NALCO, the nation’s leading water treatment and process improvement company. He approaches his work with a commendable mindset, focusing not on the difficulties ahead that result from his disability, but on the ways he can use his skills, knowledge and talents to get the job done.
“Get ahead in other areas besides physically,” Barrera said. “Be a better problem solver. You can’t let it get you down.”’
“Can’t” is a word Mr. Barrera doesn’t understand. Much like the 8,500 South Carolinians who are annually placed in the workforce through the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department (SCVRD)2, Mr. Barrera’s can-do attitude is his key to success.
Many people who have disabilities are naturally determined and optimistic. They expect to succeed because in many cases, they must work harder to overcome their disabilities.
Such is the case of Danny Williams, who became a C-6 paraplegic after a trampoline accident. Mr. Williams was a senior at the Citadel when he broke his neck. His future plans to be a commissioned army officer performed an about face.
Though he did not graduate with his class of ‘80, he eventually earned his degree and crossed the stage with the Citadel Class of ‘83. Despite the many obstacles, Mr. Williams moved forward.
“If you dwell on the negative, you are never going to move forward.” he said.
With a degree in computer science, Mr. Williams entered the workforce at Spartanburg Methodist College, where he worked with mainframe computers. He then moved to SCVRD, where he was the first person with a disability to work as a programmer in the data division. After working for two state banks, he continued his work on mainframe computers with the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control before settling into his current position with the SC State Budget and Control Board.
In addition to being a leader in the workforce, Mr. Williams makes an impact with several community service organizations, including SERTOMA and Camp Discovery, where he is a youth counselor and board member. In 1996, he inspired South Carolinians when he carried the Paralympic Torch.
Through his work and service, Mr. Williams has learned to lead a more independent life. He works full time and drives his own van. He cooks his own meals and washes his own clothes.
“Washing clothes, I can do that,” he says. “It just takes me a little bit longer.”
However, experience has shown Mr. Williams that he cannot do everything alone. He must get help for tasks like backing out his van so that he can use his wheelchair lift when a car is parked too close to his and with getting up stairs. He says that people recognize what he can and cannot do, and that they are usually happy to help.
Mr. Williams says that he is a valuable employee because he knows “the other side of computers that my new co-employees don’t know as well.”3 However, he brings more to the office than knowledge. He brings a Citadel grad’s positive attitude, a self-proclaimed perfectionist’s dedication, and an able man’s humble independence.
Mr. Williams and Mr. Barrera set high goals for what they could achieve. They were also given the opportunity to shine from the local business community. In turn, both employers have greatly benefited from their employees’ skills and talents.
Another individual who showed motivation and commitment to her profession was Susan Audé. During her junior year at Erskine College, Ms. Audé was riding home with some friends for spring break when a truck hit her friend’s car. The driver of the car was killed immediately, the other passenger was injured, and Ms. Audé suffered a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
After spending time in the hospital and rehabilitation, she graduated from Erskine College. She then graduated from the University of South Carolina with a master’s degree in mass communications in 1978. After graduation, Ms. Audé went to work for WIS-TV, where she remained until 2006.
Throughout her career as a reporter and anchor, she was determined to get the story and to not let her disability stop her. “If I went to cover a story that was on the second floor of a building that didn’t have elevators or ramps, I couldn’t go back and say I couldn’t get the story,” said Ms. Audé on the Today Show in 2006. At times, cameramen would assist her. In every situation, she would find a way.
At WIS-TV, Ms. Audé’s main focus was “just doing my job as a normal person who happens to be in a wheelchair.” She shared her motivation and wisdom often, having spoken on a wide variety of topics including encouraging women in the workforce, describing a day in the newsroom, and speaking to children about disabilities.
“I realize I have to be as outgoing as I can be to make other people feel comfortable around me.” Ms. Audé says. This allows her to get past the stereotypes to the point where “they forget you are even in a wheelchair.”4
Ms. Audé’s awards show that with tenacity and persistence, a person with disabilities can make an enormous impact on their work place and industry. Her amazing list of awards includes the Newscaster of the Year from the SC Broadcaster’s Association, the Governor’s Commission on Women’s Woman of Achievement Award, the Congaree Girl Scouts’ Women of Distinction honor, and induction into the USC School of Journalism’s “Diamond Circle,” an elite group of accomplished journalists. Like Mr. Williams, she had the honor of carrying the Olympic Torch in 1996.5
Mr. Barrera, Mr. Williams and Ms. Audé prove that in the workforce, full participation leads people with disabilities to succeed. SCVRD offers two programs to help people with disabilities succeed.
SCVRD’s Skilled Workforce Apprenticeship Training (SWAT) program allows people with disabilities to use essential apprenticeship training to develop the knowledge and skills necessary for success in their careers.
Harsco, a railroad repair equipment company, hired Marvin Hall, the first person to complete the SWAT program. Donna Lax, HR Manager at Harsco, spoke highly of Mr. Hall.
“You’ve got to get them motivated,” Lax said. “They’ve got to be here everyday. They need to be here on time. To have someone that has that work ethic... is very refreshing to me. This has been an inspiration.”6
Another program was featured in the Summer 2009 issue of New Horizons, the SCVRD quarterly newsletter. The Vocational ACES’ (assessment and career exploration specialists) main objective involves “empowering clients with enough information to successfully choose their path” and “providing vocational rehabilitation staff members with enough information to ensure that clients go to work in jobs or careers they can sustain.”7 ACES leads to better career recommendations and brighter futures for the workers.
“People with disabilities often possess valuable problem-solving skills because they are accustomed to finding creative ways to perform tasks others take for granted,” SCVRD’s annual Breakthrough magazine points out.
Mr. Barrera, Mr. Williams. Ms. Audé and Mr. Hall prove that people with disabilities can make an enormous impact on the workforce because of their determination, positive attitude and ability to seize opportunities in their professional and personal lives.
1. Barrera, Paul. Personal interview. 5 Jan. 2010.
3. Williams, Danny. Personal interview. 11 Jan. 2010.
4. Audé, Susan. Personal interview. 9 Jan. 2010.
5. “Susan Audé.” wistv.com. Count on WIS 10, n.d. Web.13 Jan. 2010.
6. Lax, Donna. “A Dynamic Connection for People and Businesses.” South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, n.p. Web. 16 Jan. 2010.