Disability Leadership by Default

Reading time: 2 minutes

I’ve mentioned this before, but like many things, it takes repetition of many forms to understand something. Thinking about it from many angles and using different words or analogies.

When it comes to leadership, it can be found in many little ways. You may not be a leader, and that’s alright, not everyone is meant to be a leader. But, there will be times when people look to you.

Specifically, my experience is with using a wheelchair and going out to do something. When I go over to a house full of who I call my adopted family, they have to lift me up about 8-10 steps to get to the front door.

In a situation like that, where people have to lift you up some stairs, who do you reckon they look to?

You have to be ready, with confidence, to tell people what needs to be done. There is no “maybe do this,” there is only a definitive.

If you’re truly unsure, then you have to tell them that you’re thinking out loud, have them try a few things as you think through what would work best, but after enough experience, you should be able to tell people exactly how to do it. They get their confidence through you.

Don’t make the people helping think hard about how to help. They’re likely nervous and possibly a bit uncomfortable with so much responsibility if you fall. Tell them what to do.

People around you will take their cues from you. This goes from helping to knowing if it’s appropriate to make a few jokes. When it comes to jokes, I’ve never been serious about using a wheelchair and I’ve never been offended.

Something I hear a lot is, “I’m okay with it if you’re okay with it.” That’s what inspired me to write this. The realization that people, when saying that, are really saying that they’re taking cues from me, my confidence will give them confidence to help and try something.


Immediate actionable items: If you’re in a wheelchair, create a mental database of things you commonly need help with (getting up stairs maybe) and have a few ways that work so you know how to get help.

Summary: Imagine you’re getting in your car, you’re in a wheelchair and a bloke comes up and asks if you need help. You say yes. That person won’t know what to do next, you need to also tell them how they can help. That’s a type of leadership.

Overdeliver: If you want to do adventurous things, be comfortable with getting help, have confidence in directing help, be willing to take on new challenges, and then remember to take a few pictures.

Being Different and Being a Leader

Cosmo giving a speech

If you’re in a wheelchair, or have some injury/disability, no doubt you’re different.

Whenever I’m in a group, either as the designated leader or just assuming the role, I always take notice to those who are a little reclusive and get them involved. When people are shy or feel out of place, they might pull back from the group a little and if no one makes a conscious effort, they will easily be left out. I always (or I like to think I always do) take notice of those more introverted in a group and try and make sure they feel included and give them the hand reaching out or the nudge they need.

I was re-reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace and decided to watch some Pixar shorts. The early ones give me a nostalgic feeling and remind me of when I was a little dude sitting on the ground, eating popcorn and watching a film on one of those huge TVs that use VCR tapes. That baby always gave me the jeebies

You can interpret the moral of this short below however you want, but my main takeaways were of being a leader and being different – disability or otherwise.

Here’s the short and after watching, I have a few things to point out that are worth making a mental or physical note of.

Pixar short – Purl

You’ll notice that Purl doesn’t quite fit in, though her skills are what got her the job (through the resume). The first lesson here is that no matter who you are, it’s what you can do to help and the value you give that matters. Like the quadriplegic I mentioned in this post (under the Generous Luck section), he was eager to do more and made it known to me. I was worried that he would overlook his opportunity to use his voice, words, and mind as a tool to develop and master a skill that would render everything else unimportant.

You’ll also notice that Purl gets ignored and left out. It’s not always appropriate to force yourself into situations, but without a sponsor – someone to bring you into the group – it can be hard to fit in and join the group.

Purl subsequently changes herself to fit in and when someone like her past self comes in, she realizes how she betrayed who she truly is.

Don’t change yourself to fit in. When it comes to the work life or college/school, all you need is to find one good or great friend and they will help you, or at the least, you can both take on the world together.

If you’re the only one, wherever you are, with a disability then you’ll definitely feel alone. Stay true to who you are, and stay positive. Soon enough, people will recognize that you can’t be affected by external things (if you build up that skill) and will respect you for it. Getting discouraged is possible, but there is always at least one person that you can confide in. The person who hired you or the leader of where you are. Leaders – good ones – are inclusive and understanding, they’re a leader because first, people were able to go to them and see them as someone that can help.

If you are being left out because of your disability, face it head on. You could even call you own meeting to set people straight if you’re that bold, or you could prove yourself through your work, or just stay persistent and maybe your own Lacey will join the workplace and then you can both start tackling the issue.

I began to think of this as analogous to disability in the workplace when, at the end, you’ll notice that everyone became better because of acceptance. You’ll notice that people had colored shirts on, the work was flowing, and there were all types of different characters getting along swimmingly.

Another lesson in this short is that if you have the opportunity to reach out to someone and include them, do it. You’ll make the world better for it. Don’t let social pressure pin you down and freeze you. All it takes is you and someone who you can help, even if that person is yourself.

When I worked at Kimberly-Clark, I never had a problem with being included. Everyone was beyond nice and it felt how the end of the short looked, inclusive and supportive. Although I was the only one in a wheelchair, I didn’t feel isolated because of it.

I was able to pretty much forget about it – a feeling I have often when I’m with the right people.

I was brought nearly to tears by the end of this short. It doesn’t take much for me.

This is a rather sporadic post, so I don’t have reading time or the typical summary and action items. I do have an overdeliver though.


Overdeliver: If you’re looking for places that are disability friendly, look at this website here. There are some companies that are accessibly and inclusive and aren’t on this list, so if you’re looking at a specific company, you can look at the resources on the aforementioned site and ask some questions.

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