In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, four Intel innovators share their personal stories of embracing challenges and empowering progress. Though each has experienced a different journey, they have in common a strength of character, perseverance, and fierce determination to succeed regardless of obstacle or impediment.
Prateek Dujari “caught the mountain bug” right out of grad school. “I joined Intel in the fall of 1999 and I started snowboarding and mountain climbing all the way up the Pacific Northwest.”
In 2001, while glacier climbing Mt. Jefferson in Oregon, some ice fell off the slopes and hit his forehead, right below his helmet. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and his optic and olfactory nerves got pinched. “I became completely blind. I was at zero light perception, which means I’m about 10-15% of all visually impaired and blind people. I also can’t smell anything.” He’s survived cerebral meningitis and several craniotomies saying “I willed myself to heal is what I believe.”
Prateek says his team and managers “have always been very supportive in terms of purchasing assistive technology for me.” He uses text-to-speech screen reader software on his computer but says there some software that not designed for the screen reader. He’s a big advocate for designing software that is assessable for visually impaired employees and attends Intel funded trips to national conferences on assistive technology.
“I feel happy that I have an opportunity to be an advocate and I’m also happy that I’m changing and affecting people’s perceptions inside Intel about what blind people are all about… just by walking up and down, the way I move, carry myself without even saying a word, I’m changing perceptions of people. I’m an active racer. I’m a duo-athlete, I’m a bicyclist, I’m a runner, I’m a hiker, I’m a paddle boarder, I’m a kayaker and I’m a snowboarder. And I do all these things very actively, all the time throughout the year. I definitely break stereotypes.”
Ryan Parker started feeling the effects of arthritis when he was in high school. “As a teenager, I thought I was indestructible, so I gave football and basketball everything,” he says. “By my senior year in high school, the arthritis in my back and neck had become so bad that I couldn’t stand up straight and I could only walk hunched over, unable to turn my neck.”
Physical therapy helped and he eventually took up recreational sports. But by the time he was 28, doctors told him he needed two knee replacements. He put it off for several years until he couldn’t walk upstairs anymore. He’s back at work, but still recuperating from the surgery he had a few months ago.
Ryan works with top retailers around the world, a job comes with a lot of traveling, sitting, standing, and walking for long periods of time. “The biggest accommodation has been receiving business travel for longer flights,” says Ryan. Intel’s policies provide for medical exemptions allowing business class travel in certain cases and this makes it possible for Ryan to perform in this role. “This [accommodation] allows me to avoid a lot of the stiffness, swelling, and at times severe pain that comes with travel for me. It’s a night-and-day difference,” he says. Ryan also takes advantage of onsite physical therapists and fitness centers.
“Having a disability means that I can’t do a few things that most people can,” he says. “There are many people affected by arthritis, but my real challenge is how people perceive invisible disabilities, or disabilities that you can’t easily see. It’s easy to think the person taking the elevator one floor is just being lazy, but often there is more to it. Luckily, I work for a great company that has worked with me to accommodate my disability.
“I know arthritis is a degenerative disease, so it’s a race against time. Fortunately, medicine and technology are making great strides and I believe that a cure in on the horizon.”
Wynnes Kwee Siong Cheow was born with cerebral palsy due to a brief moment of reduced oxygen to the brain during delivery. “All my 4 limbs are impacted. I cannot properly stretch them freely and they are not strong. I was barely able to stand up at 5 years old,” he says. He gets around the Penang campus with a motorized wheelchair and uses a walker outside of work.
“I don’t think my disability has much impact to my work as I can complete almost everything with my laptop and headset,” says Wynnes. He had a safety and ergonomics assessment for his cube and is using a height adjustable table and ergo chair. He finds that some Penang buildings are not optimized for wheelchair access and sometimes he needs help pulling or pushing a door.
He’s fine with people asking him questions about his cerebral palsy, as long as they’re delivered politely. “A respectful discussion on my disability helps me solidify my self-confidence as well as helps people understand how to assist me.”
Wynnes left his parents in Johor Bahru 12 years ago to move to Penang. “It’s not easy to live alone with cerebral palsy, but I’m glad I did. And many people don’t realize that I drive too!” He adds, “The environment might limit us, but I don’t get limited by my own heart.”
Lisa Dersh was born with sensorineural hearing loss, which is caused by damage to the tiny hair cells in the inner ear. She says her family didn’t realize she had trouble hearing until after she started kindergarten.
“The doctor,” she says, “thought it was due to my mom having rubella while she was pregnant with me.” Her progressive hearing loss means that her hearing is getting worse over time, particularly for high frequency sounds, and that sounds are not just quieter for her, but also distorted.
As a paralegal, Lisa spends a lot of time in meetings or conducting employee interviews. Phone meetings with multiple people who are on headsets, cellphones, or speak with a heavy accent can distort what she hears, and simply speaking louder to her doesn’t help.
“My coworkers and outside legal firms I work with are generally good about following up on ARs assigned to me with an email instead of assuming I’ve heard the request,” Lisa says. “During legal interviews or other 1:1 phone conversations, I usually let the employee know I am hearing impaired and request they remove their headsets if there is too much distortion.”
How does Lisa suggest people talk to her, given her hearing disability? “Patience and humor are always appreciated, especially if misunderstanding or miscommunication arises. Also, please speak clearly and look at us when speaking but do not shout since it’s usually the quality of the speech and not the loudness that can make it harder to hear what you are saying.”
While there have been big advances recently in voice recognition technology and voice-to-text conversion, Lisa would like to see real-time closed captioning solutions for telephone conversations. “Intel could possibly leverage AI into a solution that would benefit those with hearing impairment,” she says.