A Wall Street Writer on Wheels

By , May 21, 2012

When I graduated cum laude from Harvard in June 1984, I didn’t have any big illusions about my future. I didn’t visualize a palatial corner office and a fat salary, or even a grandiose job title. But I did feel reasonably certain of finding some kind of work. Even just something to get my foot in the door.

Or should I say my front caster in the door?

I’m a lifelong wheelchair-user, born with a form of spinal muscular atrophy, which is a degenerative neuromuscular weakness. I can’t comb my hair without assistance, and never could. But that kind of stuff had never really stopped me before.

When I was a kid, my parents had to fight to get me integrated into regular schools. When I graduated from high school, in 1980, colleges (indeed, all institutions that received federal money) were newly required to become accessible, under Section 504 of the Rehab Act of 1973. Most were not at all ready. At one end of the spectrum: Duke University, which flatly acknowledged that having me would be “damn difficult.” At the other end was Amherst College, which guaranteed me acceptance before I’d even applied (for fear of being sued, I’m guessing).

But Harvard had seemed willing to work with me. It had a few new, accessible dorms and a lift-equipped van to help traverse its sprawling, cobblestone campus. All I had to do was pick my classes ahead of time so they could be placed in accessible classrooms. (All my family had to do was pay for the extra dorm room occupied by my live-in attendant, whom my family also had to pay, of course.)

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. I had an ongoing dispute with the administration about my residential situation. The Deans wouldn’t let me have a roommate. Promises were made and broken. I was miserably lonely. For my senior year, I rented a small apartment off-campus and was much happier.

After graduation, I worked a summer internship writing for IBM employee publications. IBM had a track record of employing people with disabilities, and I wanted to be a writer. But IBM’s internships didn’t extend into full-time employment. So I put together a killer résumé and cover letter, with clips of my work from IBM and student newspapers. I sent them to myriad book, magazine, and newspaper publishers.

The result? Interviews, but no offers.

Yet at one interview, the editor said he liked my writing samples and offered me an assignment. And thus a freelancer was born!

I kept interviewing for regular jobs, but one question I could never answer was how I would “interact with a keyboard with sufficient rapidity.” Because of my extremely limited hand strength, I could maybe peck things out one key at a time; for my freelance work, I often hired a typist who could read my hand scrawl.

When voice-recognition software became available, it greatly accelerated my productivity. Yet I still couldn’t land a real job. For the first time in my life, I had to face the fact that I was being rejected because of my disability. Or at least it seemed foolish to rule that out. After all, discrimination against the disabled was still legal in those days.

Then, six years after my college graduation, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed! It validated every unfairness I’d been experiencing but, sadly, it didn’t get me a job. You can’t legislate attitudes.

Still, in time I got busier and busier as a freelance journalist. I discovered I understood and liked writing about Wall Street as the market was ballooning. I kept my disability a secret, though — hiding behind the telephone, fax machine, and then e-mail — for fear of losing people’s trust and respect. (I recall the day I had to do a face-to-face interview. Boy, was I nervous! And then, to my surprise and relief, he turned out to be not just amiably accommodating but physically disabled himself!)

As I gained status, I became less protective of my disability identity. Besides, the times had changed. Now, I write equally about disability and about finance. No more secrets.

Author: Ben Mattlin

Ben Mattlin, author of Miracle Boy Grows Up: How the Disability Rights Revolution Saved My Sanity, is an NPR commentator and a frequent media contributor. His work has appeared in The New York Times, USA TODAY, Los Angeles Times, Self magazine and more. Born in New York City in 1962 with spinal muscular atrophy, Mattlin graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1984. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their two daughters, and a cat and a turtle. Visit Ben on his websites BenMattlin.com and MiracleBoyGrowsUp.com.