Wheelchair basketball player holds basketball.
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How Disability and Adversity Can Bring Unexpected Positives

How living with a disability or chronic illness can develop a very particular mindset, and what others can learn from it through disability awareness.

disabilites, sports, paralympics, encouragement, adidas
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In the United States, October is recognized as National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Throughout the month, employers are encouraged to further educate themselves about disability employment issues and “celebrate the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities”. With 2019’s NDEAM theme being “The Right Talent, Right Now”, and after sharing my own experiences and tips for overcoming the challenges of living with a disability and chronic illness last year, I decided to again team up with adidas’ GamePlan A to spotlight some very special disabled and chronically ill workers.

Just as these conversations inspired and informed me, my hope is that it will give employers further insight into how disabled and chronically ill workers and creatives can bring a winning mindset and unique approach to your team, as well as inspire those with challenges of any kind to keep trying new things and pursuing what they enjoy.

Shifting the mindset

“The opportunity became greater than the problem.”
Eric Tobin, Executive VP Hopeless Records

Eric Tobin, Executive VP of Hopeless Records (an independent/alternative record label), works alongside his lifelong battle with Spina Bifida. Eric spends his days in-and-out of meetings and is on the road a few months of the year traveling. This type of profession can be taxing on anyone, let alone someone dealing with a chronic condition, but “the opportunity became greater than the problem” the first time he went on tour with an artist.

“Once I committed to the idea of going on tour, I never looked at the downside of how I would do this around my health. If I commit to things, I have to figure it out. I saw a world that this disease was supposed to prevent me from being a part of, I really became about ‘staying there’ as much as I could.” Since then, Eric has gone on to a fruitful career in music and continuously challenges himself – including recently hiking the Grand Canyon to raise money for the Spina Bifida Association of America.

Eric Tobin stands on top of a rock looking down into the Grand Canyon.
Challenging yourself will broaden your horizons.

Laura Cox, another young professional, was born without the limbs on her right side, but that wasn’t about to stop her from pursuing a career in fashion.

After triumphs in her childhood in disciplines such as swimming, dancing, bowling, and horse-riding, Laura realized that she didn’t need to fit in – she was her own kind of “normal”.

For Laura, the biggest challenge to navigate was the physical spaces and transportation options to and from the jobs she wanted to pursue. “Almost everywhere I went, the building either had nothing but stairs and no elevator, or without my own transportation, they were almost impossible to get to by bus or public transit.” Laura and her family challenged themselves and raised money to acquire an accessible vehicle that she now uses to get to and from work. Taking the chance to put herself out there and ask others to rally with her is a big part of what closed the gap on Laura’s biggest obstacle.

A group photo of Nicole Evans and friends at an event.
Keep a positive mindset and success will follow.

Within reason, sometimes the best way to challenge yourself, disability or not, is to say “yes” and commit to something new and exciting. When you find yourself loving the opportunity, you can figure out how to navigate your personal obstacles as you go.

Actor Nicole Evans, who has faced the challenges of her smaller stature and mobility issues head-on, agrees:

“Go for it. Figure out what it is you want and write it down. Learn everything about what you want to do, but don’t get trapped into studying it to death. Keep moving forward and start saying ‘YES’.”

Ideas from the hospital bed

Many people know Wesley Hamilton from his recent appearance on Netflix’s Queer Eye. His inspiring story and infectious smile have brought him plenty of attention over the last few months, and I was honored to be able to talk to him about his journey.

Wesley Hamilton lifts weights in his wheelchair at a competition.
Adapting to life with your condition means you don’t have to hold back on what others might consider impossible.

While we often tend to focus on the negative of our challenging circumstances, Wesley credits being shot and paralyzed in an act of violence as the best thing that could have happened to him, and the reason he’s gone on to create the Disabled But Not Really foundation among many other creative and professional endeavors.

“I think I went through my whole process just to be able to share”, Wes says. He also would not have had the time or headspace to learn the skills needed to become a one-man brand, launch his foundation, or start racking up the creative wins he’s had if he wasn’t forced to spend quite a bit of time in the hospital.

“I knew I was smart. I knew I had something, but the streets always brought me back. But I had the will to learn. In this hospital, I had no choice but to continue learning. Now, I do everything Wesley wants to do. I’m free, man. It’s like I was reborn the day I was shot.”

Crohn’s disease and a career in basketball?

For Larry Nance Jr., learning how to approach day-to-day life with Crohn’s disease might have been the exact thing that set him on track for an NBA career that has already included being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, participating in All-Star Weekend dunk contests, and playing in the NBA Finals with his hometown team.

“Being diagnosed with Crohn’s was very difficult as a high schooler. Nobody wants to be diagnosed with a disease you’re going to have to deal with for the rest of your life, but it was one of the best things to happen to me.”

Larry Nance Jr. playing basketball with school children in a gym.
You can still play at the top of your game and help others do the same.

In a way, Crohn’s has helped Larry be “that much more on top of everything”. He’s also found higher calling by launching Athletes vs Crohn’s after receiving an Instagram DM from a young NBA fan battling Crohn’s. Larry says challenging himself to “become the face of the disease” has been incredibly rewarding on top of his young but already fruitful NBA career.

Your career doesn’t always have to take a hit just because there’s something that appears to be blocking your way to success.

Want to share your own experiences? Have questions? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.


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by Donna Jolly 17.10.2019
Everyone is so inspiring and creative.
Thank you for sharing.
by Tony Hartman Donna Jolly 17.10.2019
Thanks for reading Donna! We have more stories and insight to share from all these great individuals soon
by Jamie Smith 20.10.2019
I was born with Spina Bifida and have found ways to work since I was 11. In just shy of 42 and still work part-time at my writing and consulting business. Growing up with a disability gave me a unique perspective on the entrepreneur's mindset.
by Tony Hartman Jamie Smith 20.10.2019
That's great to hear Jamie. After connecting w Eric I have a pretty good understanding of the disease and know how challenging it is. Continue to keep fighting to do what you love (whether it's working, running your own business, spending time w friends + family, etc.) and just KEEP GOING!
by John Yetsconish 30.10.2019
Great article, glad to be able to stories that can inspire.

First time here?