Every October, we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), which can be traced back to 1945, when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week of each October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.”
In 1962, the word “physically” was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. Fourteen years later, in 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is still celebrated today.
In recognition of NDEAM, Ryan Wilks, a Senior Specialist on United’s Social Media Brand Engagement team, tells us what NDEAM means to him. Before Wilks turned 2 years old, he was in and out of multiple doctors’ offices. “My family first realized that something might be a little different with me right around my first birthday,” he says.
After going through extensive tests and exams during the first year of his life, Wilks was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, manifesting as a weakness and uncontrollable spastic movements on his left side, as well as a stutter.
“While it’s mild, I can’t really do a whole lot with my left hand or on my left side,” Wilks explains. “I was scared, but my family—my parents and my brother—instilled a perseverance, because I’m not unable to do anything. And while finding the right words to say out loud, at times, is a challenge, when I put pen to paper, it just flows.”
Wilks discovered a love for writing at a young age, and since then he has been able to use his skills in his every-day life, especially at work. He spent his first couple of years at United working in customer-facing roles, but it is in Corporate Communications where he really feels at home. “Writing gives me a sense of freedom that I don’t have,” Wilks says. “It’s my chance to give a voice to the people who are the heart and soul of United.”
When Wilks is having difficulty speaking aloud, he’s happy for help. The accessibility note in the signature of his work email says it best: If his stutter gets the best of him—if he gets caught up in a word or a phrase—he prefers to have someone finish his sentence, if they can tell what he’s trying to say. Wilks appreciates the patience of those around him and understands that this may be a learning curve for those not familiar with people with cerebral palsy and speech disfluencies. He also knows that while this may be his preference, everyone has their own preferences; taking the time to understand (and ask) how you can best assist (or not) a differently abled individual is key.
“There’s nothing I, nor the disability community, can’t do,” says Wilks. “We may sound different or move differently, but we’re going to find a way to climb every mountain we face in life, just as anyone else would.”
During October, and year-round, it’s important to look at the world through the lens of accessibility—and to let that transform our daily perspectives. Often, we move through life without much regard for how something that is perfectly normal for one person may not be as accessible for another. Accessibility, Wilks notes, happens when awareness drives our decisions.
In 2019, Wilks—who has been and always will be an ally for customers with disabilities—became a founding member of Bridge, United’s Business Resource Group for employees of all abilities. “I don’t know what the world and the universe has planned for me,” he says, “but I know that part of why I’m made this way is to tell not only my story but the stories of those around me.”