Living and working well with a disability: A personal account

Commentary by Kathleen Ladwig
Special to the Citizen

This month is National Disability Employment Awareness Month where we celebrate and recognize the accomplishments in the workplace of men and women with disabilities.

Work, for everyone — disabled or not — offers purpose and the opportunity to lead an independent, self-directed life.

About 14 years ago I was just like most normal, active people. I went to work every day, skied, swam, rode horses and lived a very full life with my husband.

I had a nagging pain in my back and leg, but my doctor dismissed it as a sciatic nerve problem. Being a reasonable person, I simply ignored it for an entire year. At some point, I made my way back to a doctor, thinking that there would be an easy fix.

I was so wrong. After a few false starts, I was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, a very serious and fairly rare bone cancer.

The cancer was at a stage that made survival unlikely. I was told to go home and write a will because the consensus was that I had only a few weeks left. The five-year survival rate was considered to be 5 percent, with most dying in the first year.

But I had a wonderful husband, a job I loved, and some very good friends that I did not want to leave behind. I searched among doctors and hospitals for a solution, not giving up until I found a surgeon who thought he might be able to help me. His estimate for just surviving the surgery was only 50/50, but it was the best chance I had.

Following a 12-hour surgery and a long recovery, I left the hospital in a wheelchair, never to walk unassisted again.

A year later, I had recovered enough to return to work. I went on to graduate from Army Management Staff College and continued what I hoped would be a long career as an Army civilian.

Alas, it was not to be. The cancer came back with a vengeance.

In the following years, I endured a lot more surgeries, 44 at the last count. At times I was so weak that I couldn’t chew my food or even sit up. I had to be propped up with pillows or I would fall over like a newborn baby.

Through it all, my husband was there to help me, and people from the garrison came by to visit and hold my hand. I felt that there must still be a purpose to my life.

Even though I was (and still am) too sick to return to full-time work, I discussed my retirement plans with an old friend who was a manager at the Exchange. She was kind enough to encourage me to join the company, realizing that I would not be happy without some outlet that utilized my skills and gave me a chance to spend time with people; she also felt that I would be an asset to the Exchange.

While I can hobble around on crutches on good days, this did not fit into many employment positions. The Exchange’s Human Resource manager was determined to find me place that would be mutually beneficial for myself and the company. Since then, reasonable accommodations have been made so that I can continue to serve the community and try to make a difference in the lives of others.

There are challenges. I will never again walk unassisted, sit comfortably, or even eat a normal meal. I have no endurance and must constantly rest in between every task. I’m not able to work every day and I spend much of my time in a wheelchair.

I fully credit my husband with saving my life by being there and caring, sacrificing all of his time to help me.

The U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart and the U.S. Army were also my family and stood by me. People who I had never met visited me in the hospital. The garrison commander visited frequently, the command sergeant major held my hand and cried with me before a major surgery. Chaplains prayed with me and I truly felt loved.

Since joining the Exchange — another Department of Defense family — I have been treated with the same caring and respect. I was welcomed with open arms and I am delighted that life has taken me down this path.

Yes, there are struggles that continue every day, yet a disability does not have to be the end of your life. You may find that it is only the beginning.

disability employment

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