When Ken Mitchell walked into the pub to meet his work colleagues socially, he decided to 'come clean' about having a disability, used his walking stick and, with that, he received total acceptance as well as some reassuring words from his boss that he was a good engineer who was hired for his brains and not his brawn.

A can-do attitude

As engineers, we like to think we have certain traits. We’re flexible, dynamic, enthusiastic, innovative, team players who lead by example and have a can-do attitude.

We’re good communicators who will physically walk to your desk to look you in the eye rather than utilise impersonal electronic methods.

These traits give us an idealised mental image of what an engineer should look like. A significant aspect of this often incorrect mental image is that of a physically fit person.

When a person doesn’t fit this stereotype it can be difficult for some employers to accept and some employees to admit to.

For this reason, I want to write about my own personal story and how I've recently had to come to terms with the fact that I’m a person with a disability.

I’ve always had to live with my medical condition but it was easy to hide it for the most part.

When I was a child issues like not been able to do team sports, wearing special shoes, operations, pains and absences from school affected me; moulded me into an introverted person who struggled socially (I’ve long since come out of my shell).

It was just one of those things.

Condition degenerated

Five years ago, my condition degenerated and I treated it as a medical 'hiccup'. Yes, I walked with a limp, needed more operations and injections, suffered pain daily, couldn't go on hikes, couldn’t stay standing for long periods and needed a walking stick occasionally but these were just things that happened to me, they in no way defined me.

A couple of months ago my condition degenerated further and I had an epiphany, that my condition has always been part of me, it has always contributed to the definition of me... that I am a person with a disability.

I've had to face this reality head on and act on it, I applied for and received a disabled driver badge with my GP wondering aloud why I hadn't applied for it years ago.

My biggest challenge however was work. I have good and bad days and I can walk unaided mostly but it has a cumulative effect which means I need to use a walking stick some days.

As a chemical engineer, I move a lot, interacting with machinery and systems often in clinically clean areas. Would my walking stick be allowed in these clean areas?

What would my colleagues make of me? Would I no longer be viewed as the can-do guy who gets stuck into a job with enthusiasm? Would I be seen as a burden; a hindrance? Would this effect the next contract I try to get? Would it affect my career?

Skipped lunch and kept to myself

One of the most anxious days of my life was turning up to work, walking stick in hand. My nerve ran out after that, I stuck my stick under my desk and stayed at it all day, I didn't go to lunch and kept to myself.

Another opportunity to 'come clean' arose at a work party; my wiser-than-me wife insisted I bring my stick; making my condition worse due to pride would not help.

Anyway, commanding my nerves again, I walked into the pub, met my colleagues, and grabbed a pint and a seat. Within seconds I was being asked about the stick, the social lubricant of alcohol been very useful in this case.

I explained my condition, inserting my assertion that I could still continue to do my job to its full requirements.

To everyone the reaction was the same... acceptance. I expressed my fears to some, my boss pointed out that I was a good engineer, hired for my brain, not my brawn.

My colleagues pointed out that when we were working, we would work as a team, everyone working to their skillsets, strengths and abilities to give successful results; in short; my weakness was my disability, others weren’t so good at paperwork, others at troubleshooting or automation. As a team, however, we had no disabilities - only abilities.

Plenty of challenges ahead

Going forward, I know I will have plenty of challenges, I know some people who don't know me will see me as a burden and I will have to fight hard to prove them wrong and while I won’t let my disability define all of me, I will let it be a part of who I am.

I am a man, husband, father, engineer and writer who happens to have a disability. Most importantly, there is now a part of me that is more true to himself, I like to think that this will make me a better engineer but more importantly a better person.

Author: Kenneth Mitchell, BEng, HDip, MSc CEng, MIEI, is a chartered engineer in the fields of chemical and environmental engineering