5 Leadership Lessons Living with a Disability

Living with a disability isn’t easy.

In 2006, I broke my back in a motocross accident that left me an incomplete paraplegic and I had to learn how to walk again. As incredible as it is being able to walk, I still face challenges every single day living with an invisible disability.

For example, because of the nerve damage in my spinal cord, on a daily basis I experience chronic fatigue, pins and needles, muscle spasms, and much more which no one would see on the surface yet make each day more difficult than the average person.

This article, however, isn’t about my problems. It’s about the lessons I have learned living with a disability.

On December 3rd, as we celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), I decided to reflect on lessons I have learned around leadership while living with a disability, and how it relates to adopting The Hero Mindset and becoming a hero in your own movie.

(ps. To learn more about The Hero Mindset keynote, click here)

In my experience, persons with disabilities (PWD) and their caregivers and supporters are thoughtful, courageous, and incredibly resilient people, and we often have a lot we can learn from them.

This year’s theme for IDPD is “Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.”.

Considering that, here are five tips to help you as a leader in celebrating the mindset of people with disabilities.

Adopt a Forward-Thinking Mindset

I remember sitting down with Maureen Haan, CEO of the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work (an organization which helps PWD find employment, and employers hire PWD) a few years ago when she shared with me a story about an employer who was hesitant to hire a PWD because they couldn’t see the benefit.

Until they were on their way to the airport.

As Maureen and the employer were driving from the hotel to the airport, she started to provide some examples on how PWD have a forward-thinking mindset.

Imagine your disability requires you to live in a power wheelchair and you need to get to the airport. You have to think about several steps, such as:

  • Arranging accessible transportation
  • Scheduling enough time in advance to dress, check out, travel, etc.
  • Plan your route (which hopefully is accessible)
  • Plan for weather delays
  • Plan for accessibility delays
  • Communicate your schedule to others because of possible delays

There are so many additional considerations to be had.

Now think about this from a business perspective. How often do you wish that your employees paid more attention to detail, thought further in advance of what could go wrong, better managed timelines, and communicate more effectively with your team?

PWD have a forward-thinking mindset, and as a result can bring a new perspective to you and your organization.

By the time Maureen and the employer got to the airport, the employer was convinced of the benefits in hiring a person with a disability. The intangible skillsets are often what sets people apart within the workplace, more than their skillset.

Think about it for a moment.

As a leader, how can you adopt a forward-thinking mindset? How can you create a more inclusive culture for persons with disabilities?

As a leader, how can you adopt a forward-thinking mindset? How can you create a more inclusive culture for persons with disabilities? Click To Tweet

Awareness Creates Opportunities

PWD can often struggle with having something to look forward to.

Personally, it was not until two years after my spinal cord injury that I even discovered the sport of sledge hockey.

When I finally did discover it, I found a way to get active living with a disability. I found a new, likeminded community, to be a part of. Then, as a result, I joined Team Canada which then led me to creating my corporate team building program, The Sledge Hockey Experience.

It’s my mission to help the able-bodied population become advocates for PWD and inspire other PWD to see what’s possible living with a disability.

You can be outgoing. You don’t have to be shy about your disability. You can start a business. You can leverage your disability.

The more awareness we can create, the more opportunities we create for PWD and give them something to look forward to.

At the end of each Sledge Hockey Experience event we always ask everyone to tell someone about the sport. If we can create more awareness about the sport, we can help more PWD to get active and feel included within the community.

Now let me ask, as a leader, are there Employee Resource Groups that you can you create more awareness around? What communities in your area do you know of that needs more representation and support?

As you seek to create a more inclusive workplace, don’t wait to let others know about what you have to offer. Creating awareness today will foster new opportunities for a better tomorrow.

(Click here to see highlights from our last team building event!)

Find a New Perspective

As a leader, you are often searching for a new perspective on how to grow, how to lead, and how to approach new challenges and situations.

PWD regularly exercise their mental muscle to think differently, often because of things like accessibility issues.

But what about you?

How often do you exercise your mind to think differently and find a new perspective about the challenges you are facing?

When we run Sledge Hockey Experience team building events, one of the most unique aspects to the program is that you get #buttdown for a new perspective on life, sport, and PWD.

(Contact us here if you are looking for a team building event!)

As soon as you strap into a sled you lose the use of your legs and you are forced to think differently. You become more aware of your (perceived)limitations and have to quickly adapt to figure things out and learn how to move forward and succeed.

What does that look like in your business? What limitations are you currently facing that perhaps are only perceived limitations? What would you do differently if you had an ability taken away from you right now?

For example, if a team member quit, your budget was cut tomorrow, or the market shifted again, how would you find a new perspective quickly to move forward and adapt?

The Sledge Hockey Experience is about helping people come together on a level playing field to bond, connect, and to learn how to think differently. As you step back and reflect on what it would be like if you suddenly lost your ability to do something, you find a new perspective to your current challenges.

As a leader, how can you step back and find a new perspective on your challenges today?

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Inspire Others With What’s Possible

When I competed in Sochi at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, the theme was I’m Possible.

The athletes show you what’s possible from a physical perspective, but also help you see what’s possible from a mental perspective.

As I have built the Sledge Hockey Experience, I hope to show other PWD what’s possible for themselves by building a life after sport, and by building a business around my disability.

As a leader, you help show others what’s possible.

I have been inspired by The Rollettes dance team, a group of ladies who all live in wheelchairs and who have built personal brands online about their life with a disability. They each have an individual brand, as well as the group who hosts classes for PWD to come out, dance, and learn how to express themselves.

I am inspired by Mark Fraser, who saw a need and an opportunity to promote inclusion within the sport of hockey and is now focused on player development with its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion team for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mark has helped curate stories from within the Toronto Maple Leafs and the community in a series called Open Ice featuring stories about the diversity within the team and how we can promote inclusion in the sport of hockey.

Check out this feature on Auston Matthews on his Mexican background & Hispanic Heritage, or this feature on the Sledge Hockey Experience.

I am also inspired by Wade Beebe, who started All Sports All People years ago because his son, Kayden, who has cerebral palsy and autism, needed a place to play and feel included. Not only did Wade help me get the Sledge Hockey Experience going, but together we have partnered and helped purchase sledge hockey equipment for 31 children to play the sport of sledge hockey.

As a leader, how do you inspire others to see what’s possible? In what way can you show up to promote inclusion within the workplace, or within your community?

Create a Culture of Resilience

When I deliver keynotes and workshops, I often get asked where resilience in life came from, and I always think back to my motocross days.

In the world of extreme sports, we break bones, we crash, we fail, and we just accept that that’s part of what we signed up for.

In the PWD world, some people are born with a disability whereas some people acquire one later on in life, so not everyone “signs up for it”, but what I always like to share is that “It’s in the culture, that when we fall down we pick ourselves back up. Why? Because that’s just what we do.”

In motocross and living with a disability, we live a culture of resilience.

When we encounter challenges, setbacks, and disappointment, we don’t stop. We don’t give up. We pick ourselves back up.


Because that just what we do.

When we think of PWD, it can be easy to perceive weakness or limitations, whereas I see opportunities and a culture of resilience.

As a leader, how can you instill this kind of mindset into your team? How can you start to breed this mindset and attitude into your culture?

As a leader, how can you instill this kind of mindset into your team? How can you start to breed this mindset and attitude into your culture? Click To Tweet

In Conclusion

The world of PWD is very broad, and I do not wish to paint all disabilities with the same brush. I speak from experience living with a physical disability and know that everyone has unique circumstances, both as a PWD and as an employer.

I also know that showing up, resilient, every day as a both a leader and a PWD is easier said than done.

However, what’s common among both parties is how you choose to show up.

When I deliver my keynote on The Hero Mindset, that’s what I am trying to help you discover for yourself.

How do YOU choose to show up, every day?

As we reflect on International Day of Persons with Disabilities day, I encourage you to consider these leadership lessons I have learned as you navigate this world and space yourself.

When we adopt the right mindset, that is how each of us can show up and become a hero in our own movie.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you develop a resilient mindset:

How To Manage Change Effectively

Life Doesn’t Give You What You Want, Life Gives You What You Need

How To Stay Focused At Work And Be Productive

Whenever you are ready here are the 3 best ways I can help you:

  1. Get a FREE copy of my autobiography (click here)
  2. Looking for a speaker for your next event? (Contact Kevin)
  3. Learn more about The Resilience Toolbox Workshop (click here)

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