Submitted by Thomas Sullivan

I have never allowed my disability to hold me back from my ultimate goal of becoming a productive member of the workforce. Cerebral palsy affects everyone differently. Unfortunately, despite the unique experience of each person with cerebral palsy, we are often lumped into one group. Some people with cerebral palsy experience impact to their muscular system, have overactive reflexes or involuntary movements, impact to their speech patterns, developmental impacts, or some variation of the three. My disability affects me in physical ways but does not affect me cognitively.

Throughout primary and secondary school, one of the greatest challenges I faced was being lumped together with other students who had different needs. What worked for other students did not apply to me. My particular needs were disregarded based on assumptions of my capabilities that were rooted in an overgeneralization of students with disabilities. I found that the school system was really not equipped to provide the individualized educational experience we all needed. At one point, I was evaluated and told I was not “college material.” I knew they were wrong and refused to allow their assumptions to hold me back.

I obtained my bachelor’s degree in business administration and business management, along with a minor in human resources management, from Kent State University in 2011. Throughout my college experience, I worked hard and lived independently in a college dormitory. I was excited to join the workforce. I had proven the school systems wrong, gained my degree and was ready to take the next steps in starting my career.

After graduation, though, I experienced a new challenge, finding a job. I never dreamed it would take so long or be so difficult. I had completed the same coursework and participated in the same academic programs as my fellow students, but I still struggled to find someone who would give me a chance to show what I could offer an employer. I will admit there are particular tasks that would be difficult if not impossible for me, but I knew I had a lot to offer and just needed an employer who was willing to allow a few accommodations and give me a chance to show what I could do.

After college I had to move back home with my parents until I could find a job. After having become accustomed to being independent, it was a difficult move to make. I worked with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD) in the years prior to my association with Bender. After three years, I was still not able to secure meaningful employment. The difference between working with a government agency and with Bender was like night and day. After years of working with OOD I was eventually “persuaded” to accept a position in a call center environment. It was a temporary job and was not at all suited to my talents or my needs, making the opportunity not an ideal situation for me or the employer. In order to enter data on the computer, I need to use a software called Dragon Naturally Speaking. Unfortunately, the company I was placed with was not able to obtain and set up the software until two weeks before my contract was scheduled to end. It was a frustrating experience for both me and the employer. At the end of the contract, I could not see that there was a future with the company for me.

When I met Bender and was introduced to the Careers2B program, it was a very different experience. The recruiters listened to my career interests and goals and had strong relationships with their employers allowing them to identify an opportunity that would be beneficial to both parties. Accepting the opportunity with Bender allowed me to not only move out on my own, but to go to a new city. Exploring everything Pittsburgh has to offer has been an awesome and exciting experience. There’s always something new to see or do. Also, it’s a great boost to my self-esteem to navigate a new city on my own. Of course, getting a paycheck and feeling responsible for my own life has been terrific too.

The Careers2B position I held at Highmark afforded me the opportunity to gain useful and marketable experience as I move forward in my career. Bender was able to place me in a position that allowed me to utilize the knowledge I gained in college. In my Careers2B role, I supported Highmark Health Solutions (Highmark’s IT division) Human Resources Business Partner Team as a human resources analyst. In my role, I enhanced procedures and Workday tasks to streamline processes for initiating work from home arrangements and improving the employee experience. I also had the opportunity to co-develop a new business resource group for employees with disabilities, providing a forum for assistive technology users and identification of system and procedural improvement opportunities. At Highmark, I had the ability to make a real contribution using my education and experiences. I participated in real projects that would support the success of the enterprise and their workforce. Everyday brought new challenges, but these challenges were not ones based on other people’s bias or assumptions on what I could or could not do. These were challenges that allowed me to demonstrate my individual talents and abilities. These were challenges that I could face with enthusiasm.

Since finishing my Careers2B placement with Highmark, Inc., I will be supporting the United Way & the City of Pittsburgh as a career transition professional. I am looking forward to this next step in my career and being able to help other people with disabilities to realize their dreams.

If I were to give others with a disability advice about connecting with Bender, it would be to not be afraid. Bender is very knowledgeable regarding disability, and everybody’s unique experience. Rather than pushing you into a pre-determined role, they will advocate for you in getting and succeeding in an employment opportunity. It’s a great comfort knowing you re not out there on your own, that someone has your back and is always there to help you along the way. Bender will make sure you have the accommodations you need to do the work successfully. All you need is the determination and Bender will help you be on your way.

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