I’m Karen Schallert and I work as an activist and expert for inclusion with my company “HandicapUnlimited” for the topic “disability in the working world”.
My professional career began after my studies in Germany and the USA in the security service and led me via Deutsche Post to McKinsey and finally to international plant engineering, where I worked for a long time as a human resources manager. But then my health, a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, forced me to take a two-year break during which I had to interrupt my professional activities. After this time, I started my own business and since then I have also been working as a management consultant and coach with my company “HandicapUnlimited” on the topic of “careers with disabilities”.
Privately, I have been widowed since 2014 and my three stepsons accompany me through my life. I have also been lucky enough to become a grandmother twice.
If I could, I would like to make all people with disabilities more visible. I believe that this is the only way true change can come about through dialogue.
I have had multiple sclerosis since 2000, but was not definitively diagnosed until 2004. After suffering a physical breakdown, I initially took emergency retirement in 2017 and recovered for 2 years.
But soon the question came up: How do I want to live my life in the future? After all, it was hard for me to imagine already being retired in my late 40s; after all, I always enjoyed my job very much. Since I had already gained many years of experience as a coach and business mediator through my professional background, a contact called me and told me about female academics with disabilities who either wanted to return to professional life or gain a foothold in it. She asked me if I would spontaneously like to become one of the mentors for a program of the Hildegardis Association. At first, I was surprised, because I had not thought about this possibility before. But when I met the young women, my enthusiasm was immediately aroused.
I realized that there are many great career development and youth development programs. But there is a lack of offerings for women with disabilities who want to pursue a career. This issue seems to be completely overlooked. Women are often already happy to even find a job that takes their impairment into consideration. Thinking about the next steps in their career doesn’t seem to fit in with the common perception. For this reason, I decided to commit myself to this very topic in the future. After all, I myself could look back on a career that could be wonderfully pursued from a wheelchair since 2010.
Through this first collaboration, I realized how important visibility is to create a different awareness of disability in the workplace and also to encourage others to achieve their goals. If I manage with my work to inspire just a few people to think about a career they would not have thought possible before, then I am satisfied.
I can still remember very clearly the moment when I was told that I was to be promoted to HR manager. At that moment, many thoughts inevitably ran through my head at the same time: joy, but also the question of whether this was really a wise decision. Just four weeks earlier, I had finally received the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
This point was crucial, as all the doctors emphasized how counterproductive stress could be in my situation. And just at this stage, I was also in the middle of a gigantic project. The workload was enormous, and there were additional responsibilities, because on the side we had offices in Manchester, Taiwan, Shanghai and Brussels to support HR matters. This constellation seemed anything but suitable given my fresh diagnosis. Despite these doubts, I was very fortunate to have a wonderful husband by my side who encouraged me to seize the opportunity anyway and trust in me.
Still, I couldn’t deny that underlying question of whether I could really handle it all. These thoughts lingered until I was able to fight back with the support of the executive director. He assured me that he had my back, regardless of what happened. There was never any question as to whether I would be able to do so. Knowing that I was trusted and that my efforts were supported gave me immense strength.
Yes, I think it is. This fact is also reflected in the figures, which show that people with disabilities take three times longer to gain a foothold in professional life. The path to a successful career is far more complicated because we are often pigeonholed – as unable to perform or constantly absent. We are all too familiar with this pattern. Many people achieve impressive professional success but keep a low profile and don’t disclose their disability at all, for example. So, it is not fully transparent how many people with disabilities actually have or have had careers, because they often do not show themselves in public and most likely hardly talk about it.
If I could give advice to people with disabilities, it would be to look more closely and analyze what is actually due to the disability.
In my career coaching sessions, we always look at the extent to which we give too much space to disability. I ask people to imagine what they would do if money was no object and disability was not a limitation. What would be their dream? We then examine whether that dream is feasible. It’s about breaking free from the idea that disability is limiting – doomed to merely picking up the crumbs. Rather, it’s about finding out what I’m really good at and what skills, such as being solution-oriented, I’ve trained more in because of the disability, for example. Afterwards, it can then be examined in which direction it could go.
It is important not to automatically assume that certain positions or tasks are unattainable because of the disability. The question should be: How free is my thinking? Am I excluding too much because of presuppositions? Is it really not possible? Of course, there are things that are not possible because of a disability, but that affects all of us, I think. So, I advise everyone to consciously look and explore where we let thoughts block us and what skills we have that could be of use to employers. No one should focus on deficits or limit themselves to what he or she can’t do.
For example, I am very good at finding creative solutions because of my wheelchair use. Standard solutions often don’t work for me, so I develop creative approaches every day. This skill is transferable – it’s about communicating that. It is crucial not to appear as a deficit supplicant, but to present yourself with your own strengths.
I often observe that companies initially seem overwhelmed by the topic of disability and think it’s complicated. They wonder what funding is available and how they should get information. My advice then is to take a deep breath and consider what kind of people with disabilities might even fit into the company. For example, if there is no elevator, wheelchair users should not be immediately considered, but there may be other groups that could be considered.
The first question should always be what is conceivable and pragmatically feasible, rather than feeling pressured to be perfect before the first interview even takes place.
The most important thing is to get into conversation with each other and find out how that person’s expertise (applies to everyone, by the way) complements the work environment. Does the person need assistive technology? Often companies immediately think of extensive rebuilding and intensive support, but that doesn’t have to be the case at all. It’s about letting go and leveraging the expertise of the other person. That makes everything much easier. And if challenges do arise, then solutions can be found together and the working environment can be designed to fit.
Above all, we need to overcome the barriers in our minds that prevent us from approaching and accepting certain people. We must not think, “I already have so much to do, I don’t need that on my plate now, too.” Because often the idea that it means extra work is the real obstacle.
What surprised me when I returned to work was that at first, I felt I had to give an instruction manual – some kind of instructions on how to deal with me. It’s simply about dialogue, not about always knowing in advance what the best behavior might be or what may or may not be said. Instead, it’s about acknowledging the person and saying what we feel. Simply getting in touch. This has nothing to do with disability, but with accepting that each of us faces difficult situations that just don’t stop at the office door. Sometimes they may be visible in the daily work routine. It is permissible to address this. We are allowed to say, “Excuse me, my child has been crying all night, I am really exhausted today.” Then the others don’t have to immediately think that they have done something wrong. Otherwise, it only leads to unnecessary speculation.
Inclusion is often perceived as something alien and divisive, but it’s actually about something holistic. It’s about talking to each other. I always emphasize that my clients can ask me anything, and the likelihood that I’ll have an answer is pretty high. But it’s not about thinking about things like, “Oh dear, how should I act now?” or “Does this person even have a certain intelligence?” It’s about recognizing that we’re all human. Of course, the person I’m talking to may say to me, “I don’t want to talk to you right now.” That’s perfectly fine. It’s about reducing fears and prejudices. For example, if I had met people in wheelchairs earlier, my fear of the wheelchair might not have been so great.
The questions of whether I can still work at all, whether I can still live at all, and whether I even want to live at all were the central issues. When the wheelchair came into play, life felt like it was over for the time being. The idea of going back to work seemed unlikely. I could hardly imagine a life in this situation.
I sometimes find the discussion in Germany quite tiring. In the beginning I didn’t like the word “disability” at all, it always made me feel uncomfortable. That was also the reason why I named my company “HandicapUnlimited”. In the meantime, I got used to it because I realized that “handicap” is not the ideal word because it doesn’t take into account the aspect that the environment is handicapping. What Austria is implementing by talking about “people with favored status” I think is pretty awesome. It would be nice, and this is really just my personal opinion, not to use “people with disabilities” or even “severely handicapped ID,” because these terms still evoke a negative energy in me personally that weighs down.