As many influential women I have known who have impacted the civil rights of others, when I started my career in executive search, it was not with the intent to become an advocate, not just for my own rights, but for the rights of others. Rather, becoming an advocate was an inevitable step with each decision to turn away from the status quo of stigma. For me, it was crucial to take action based on what I believed was right, fair and just and not embrace the convenient passivity of much of society.
This month is Women’s History Month, and the blogs posted will celebrate some of the women who have impacted the disability community. Most people know me as a passionate advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, a champion of employment equality for people with disabilities, and a proponent for the quality of life for people with epilepsy. But just as my personal experience with epilepsy had impacted the direction of my life, so too has my personal experiences as a woman. As a woman, I knew what it was like to have my talents marginalized and my voice ignored.
Prior to being diagnosed with epilepsy after a fateful accident as a result of seizure, I had, for years, experienced what my doctor characterized as ‘fainting spells’, something I was assured was not unusual for women to experience and rather than being tested for any serious conditions, I was diagnosed as having ‘a female hormonal problem.’ I can still remember how frightening these ‘fainting spells’ were for my husband and me…the overwhelming sense of nausea followed by losing consciousness and falling rigidly to the floor…the concern in my husband’s eyes when I would regain consciousness…the feeling of helplessness that this ‘thing’ was happening to me, not because of anything that could be quantified and treated, but because of some personality quirk that was inherently female in nature. My own gender was impacting my life, not just in how I was perceived in the workplace during a time when women were fighting to be accepted in predominately male-dominated career fields, but physically as well.
Young women today may wonder why I did not question this diagnosis or push further to find answers, but this was in a time prior to WebMD and quick answers on the Internet. I had grown up in a rural area outside of Pittsburgh and it was a trusted family doctor who I had relied on to have answers for what was happening to me. I had no reason to question his assertion that what I was experiencing was not anything serious until I woke up from a coma after having emergency brain surgery from hitting my head as a result of a fall during a seizure. Looking back, I know that had I been a man who had visited the doctor with my symptoms, more care would have been given to my diagnosis, additional tests would have been run, and I may not have had a seizure that night.
Receiving my diagnosis of epilepsy was both frightening and a relief. Frightening because I was facing this long road of rehabilitation after brain surgery and I needed to understand how epilepsy would change my day-to-day life and a relief because although there was so much left to learn, there was an answer; a medical diagnosis that had nothing to do with my gender or my nature. I was not prone to this because I was a woman or because I was ‘too emotional.’ What I was experiencing had a name and there were steps I could take to learn more about what it was and how I could treat it.
Today when I talk about my epilepsy, I tell others that I have seizures because I have too much fire power. I have learned over the course of my life to embrace that part of me that my doctor identified as being ‘a female hormonal problem’. The experience I had with my doctor has driven me to speak out when I see injustice, stand strong in the face of adversity, and never back down. I know that the right course of action may not always be the easy one, but it will always be the most rewarding one. My experience as a woman taught me to never be afraid of asking questions and pushing for answers. It has made me a better advocate, not just because I know the importance of using my voice, but how it feels to be unheard. I have embraced my fire power and I will never forget that when I talk to companies about employing people with disabilities, travel for the State Department to talk internationally about disability employment or speak about the impact bullying has on young people with disabilities, I am acting as the voice of my sisters and brothers with disabilities around the world.
This month in celebration of Women’s History Month, I will be sharing blog posts from some of the women I have known in my life who have an impact on the civil rights of people with disabilities. Please stop back next week for our first blog post from Christine Griffin, former Assistant Secretary for Disability Policies and Programs for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, former Deputy Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and former Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.