Joe Duffy

Joe Duffy traces many positive events in his life directly back to Prudential. But prior to joining the company, the Scranton-based senior investment operations associate in Prudential Retirement, faced enormous challenges.

When he was 9, Duffy was diagnosed with stage 4 bone cancer. During two years of treatment, he lost his hair, the use of his right leg and 80% of his hearing. But worst of all, he lost friends: Many of the children he’d grown close to at New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center had died.

Just before he finished his treatment, Duffy and his fellow patient-friends made a pact: “Since we’d been blessed to make it as far as we had, we would vigorously pursue a great life to honor our friends who didn’t make it,” he recalls. “Pretty deep for a bunch of kids, but being faced with death at a young age made us grow up fast.”

He finally returned to school at age 12, now with profound hearing loss. He sums it up this way: “I worked twice as hard to get half as far, and it was enough to keep me progressing.”

Duffy attended Penn State University, taking advantage of tutoring sessions and peer study groups to stay on track. He needed an internship to graduate and lined up a phone interview for one with Prudential.

Then panic set in.

He had only a 50% chance of hearing the interviewer’s questions. And if he actually got the internship, he wouldn’t have the safeguards he’d had in college. “To say the least, I was terrified,” Duffy recalls.

The solution? The best hearing aids money could buy. Unfortunately, those cost almost $10,000, which he didn’t have. But through a fortuitous connection to a philanthropist in the hearing-aid industry, he ended up with the most advanced hearing-aid technology available—for free. And he got the Prudential internship.

The internship led to a full-time job. “Getting the email with the subject line ‘Job Offer’ was one of the proudest moments of my life,” Duffy says.

Partnering with schools for the deaf

In Prudential, Duffy says he found a company that supports people who are deaf and hard of hearing in many ways. This includes a longstanding partnership with Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Prudential has offered many internships to the Institute’s students, several of whom have become full-time employees.

The Rock—but flexible

For employees with hearing loss, Prudential takes advantage of advanced technology, including a service that allows someone to have an ASL interpreter join meetings on-demand via tablet.  Job candidates who need accommodations are also given the tools they need for interviews, including an in-person interpreter.

“A lot of what we provide is not required. But we want employees to be engaged,” says Diane Hettinger, director of workplace accommodation and environmental health. “We want to be known as an inclusive employer that values each individual’s unique talents.”

This has certainly been Duffy’s experience: “I find Prudential’s willingness to accommodate is our strongest and most consistent characteristic. We may be the Rock, but when it comes to individuals with disabilities, we are flexible.”

This extends to customers, too. For instance, if a financial professional meets with a client who is deaf or hard of hearing, Prudential will provide a captioning service or an interpreter, even hiring the client’s own interpreter.

Duffy considers his employment with Prudential a turning point in his life. He pays his good fortune forward through a charity golf outing he started to benefit those who are deaf and hard of hearing.

“Because of Prudential I was able to purchase an engagement ring and ask my girlfriend to marry me,” he says. “We were able to purchase a home, welcome our daughter in 2013, and diligently save for our future. And because of Prudential I get up every morning taking pride in the fact that, despite many hardships, I am able to keep moving forward.”

Adair Reese

Being ADHD has given me a superpower. Adair Reese Youth Market Director, American Heart Association

We sat in a cold, horrible ’80s painted doctor’s office. Being ten, the conversation wasn’t one I was being included in, but more of the audience. “She has ADD”, explained the doctor. Which, for my parents, answered no questions. I’m sure there were more answers, more confusion, and then medication. For the next 28 years of my life, I would struggle with being different, labeled, made fun of, treated unfairly, feeling like I didn’t belong, and at times wondering if “living” was really worth it. As an adult, I was told that ADD/ADHD didn’t exsist. I was depressed, had anxiety, or just needed to “grow-up”.


Being ADHD has given me a superpower. I think outside of the box, work faster than most, especially when I’m passionate about what I do. One of the aspects that I didn’t’ expect…I am unable to have a job I hate?! I am unable to do things halfway and this leads me to only being able to perform well in a job I love.

Who am I now? I am Mrs. Nebraska America, a wife & mother, professional youth market director of AHA, and influencer!

I give kids with ADHD the vision that you will be the leaders of the future and the game changers of tomorrow!

Ray Hawes

I lost my leg in motor cycle accident when I was 20 years old. I really thought my life was over. But I was always a pretty creative guy, and I took construction trades classes in high school. Long story short: I am known as that one-legged guy that does amazing tile work! Been doing it now for 30-plus years.

Laura Andert

I was born with mild Cerebral Palsy. My doctors told my family that I could go through life without ever walking and talking. From countless hours of working with Physical and Speech Therapists, my parents and two big sisters did everything they could to help me start on a hopeful future. As I grew up and began to understand the obstacles and challenges, I may face with having CP, I knew in my heart that if I wanted to live the life I wanted, I had to strive and persevere.

I found out quickly that in the world of work I needed to advocate for myself. After high school, I looked into going to college, but more academics were not something that was feasible, and I decided there was a different path for me to take. I wanted to work at Panera Bread. I did everything I could to let Panera realize how interested and passionate I was by making phone calls, and visits. My excessive efforts payed off. I got the job. Panera Bread hired me for a special position, which they had to get Corporate’s approval for, instead of the original position I applied for. This was my first experience with “job accommodation”.

This is my dream job! I am so proud of where I'm at today in my career path. Laura Andert Operations Assistant, WeCo Accessibility Services

A few years later I started thinking about more of a career. The hospitality department at a fitness center piqued my interest. It took me two years of written and in-person communication to get a job there.

Each job provided me more confidence to pursue a position with increased responsibilities. Presently I am working in a corporate setting, at WeCo Accessibility Services, reaching my full potential. This is my dream job! I am so proud of where I’m at today in my career path. If I didn’t do the things I did and go the extra mile for each position, my life would be a lot different. I have a mild condition of Cerebral Palsy, but it has not stopped me.

Cy Estabrook

  • 2015 Slip and Fall Accident
  • T-12 Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury-Paraplegic
  • Vice-Chair Pasadena Accessibility Commission
  • Independent Mortgage Broker serving the disability community with special loan programs for access needs.

Lynn Wehrman

WeCo Accessibility Services President/Founder, Lynn Wehrman, was born with, and raised alongside four sisters who lived with cognitive disabilities. They, and many members of their extended family, live with Epilepsy and major mental illnesses.

“From the time I was very young I was aware that we were different than other families. So many people in our extended family had Epilepsy that Columbia University included us in an extensive study on the disorder. Managing medication and symptoms was a natural part of life.”

Competing for jobs in a world that saw mental illness and cognitive disabilities as taboo, Lynn learned early on to never disclosed her cognitive disability in the workplace. “When working for a large national banking organization, disclosing my mental illness to a manager led to direct and ongoing harassment. When we were alone, he used to say things to me like, ‘You’re not going to go ‘postal’ on us, are you?’ That’s when I learned to hide my disability. But hiding my disability to make others comfortable isn’t going to change anything.”

I am a business owner/digital professional/executive first. A person who outgrew Epilepsy and who lives successfully with a major mental illness, second. Lynn Wehrman President/Founder, WeCo Accessibility Services

Prior to starting WeCo Accessibility Services, a digital accessibility consulting company where people living with disabilities make up most of the staff as SME’s, Lynn had begun to speak openly about her diagnosis of Clinical Depression and her successful treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, at employee events when she worked for the State of Minnesota.

Lynn continues to speak publicly to dispel the prejudices and misconceptions people living with mental illness face, through her work as WeCo’s President. She strives to make her life an open statement the defies the taboos of mental illness and cognitive disabilities by saying: “I am a business owner/digital professional/executive first. A person who outgrew Epilepsy and who lives successfully with a major mental illness, second.”

Sean Boyle

It’s a lot to take in when a doctor informs you that you have – in his opinion – an inoperable tumor in your brainstem and six months to live.

Fortunately, that doctor turned out to be wrong; I had a second opinion a few days later that showed it was merely a cluster of cells that was bleeding in said-brainstem (Also bad, but not deadly). Looking back on it though, had the doc been right, I would have spent nearly 2 percent of my days left on Earth sulking, not processing; not doing what I was passionate about. Yes, I was in shock. It is understandable that someone might just want to disappear. But I’m not proud of my reaction to the news. I’d like to think I’d celebrate the life I have left if faced with a similar situation again.

Fast-forward through 3 weeks of trying not to think about my chances of dying from anesthesia. I ended up getting my brainstem jabbed at for about 6 or 7 hours; some people call it surgery. Due to this knife fight between my brain and the team of medical professionals, I have nerve damage through half of my body. I have vision issues in my left eye, slight paralysis in my left foot, and my personal favorite: balance and coordination issues.

I get to say I’m a Paralympian and a member of the US Soccer team. Sean Boyle Paralympic Athlete (Soccer), US Soccer

Until the day of my diagnosis, I was a goalkeeper on a Division 1 soccer team. I was good, not great, but it was my first love. I spent countless hours avoiding other responsibilities to practice keeping a round ball out of rectangle. My diagnosis didn’t just stall my playing days, the medical team that battered my brainstem also gave a kidney shot to my pride, telling me I would never play soccer again. Fortunately, they, too, were wrong.

Within 2 months of surgery (I wasn’t really medically cleared so don’t tell anybody), I was in Atlanta trying-out for the US Para 7-a-side National Team, which would be going to compete in the Rio Paralympic Games that same year. Relearning how to walk turned out to be a breeze compared to keeping the ball out of the rectangle. Jumping and coordinated footwork were purely theoretical for me. But it got easier, and easier, and at this point I’m lucky enough for US Soccer to fly me around the world and pay me to protect the rectangle for the country. I get to say I’m a Paralympian and a member of the US Soccer team.

Outside of my time with US Soccer, I also had to figure out my life again. I decided that education was going to be my saving grace. I moved out and found myself living in Boston, attending Northeastern University. It turns out, when I didn’t have to mold my body for 6 hours a day with the help of a tiny many who only spoke in profanities, I have the energy to follow my intellectual passions. I am deeply invested in working in financial inclusion and payments, ensuring financial access for all.

Heading into graduation in May 2020, I have already lined up an amazing opportunity to work for Mastercard post-graduation.

Finally, we get to the point of the article, #Lookcloser. When somebody looks at me, they don’t see disability, but hey—sometimes I can’t see them at all (that’s a vision joke, for folks keeping score at home). I’m incredibly privileged in the sense that all of my impairments are invisible, and are triggered by physical stress. I struggle on my own terms and don’t have to deal with any preconceived stigmas surrounding my disability unless I openly disclose.

But not everybody has the same opportunity to read the room and decide their path like I do. When you hear the campaign #Lookcloser, take my story and understand that 1. It could be anybody that struggles with a disability, and 2. Anybody that struggles with a disability probably has a fantastic story with amazing accomplishments attached to it.

 

Author’s note: If you would like to discuss any element of the program, or if you know a soccer player who has Cerebral Palsy, had a Stroke or a Traumatic Brian injury who’d like to play for the US Para 7-a-side National Team, contact head coach Stuart Sharp at ssharp@ussoccer.org

Maureen Pranghofer

People talk about the things, especially websites, that aren’t accessible. They wish it was easier to get a job when you have a disability. But we have come along way from where we were.

A snapshot of where we were is clearly visible for those people, like me, who are in their mid to late 60’s and older. It looked then like this back then.

I had an excellent resume with good clinical and intern experience in my chosen field of music therapy. But when my dog guide and I walked into a place that was hiring, the gentleman who spoke to me barely glanced at my resume and said, “How did you get dressed?” All he could see was that I looked nice, and had gotten myself in the door and how I functioned at all as a low vision person was a mystery.

Going for an interview for a social work internship 12 years later when I asked the receptionist if someone could walk me to the office where I needed to go she picked up her phone and said to my potential boss, “There’s a little blind girl here who needs help.” Of course, I didn’t get that internship.

Fast forward to now. WeCo Accessibility Services, who hired me as a Sr. Client Specialist, is just one company who hires professionals with disabilities. The trend is changing, slowly, and companies are seeing the value of hiring disabled workers.

So, if you get discouraged about the state of things, think of how it used to be and how much better it is now. That realization will give all of us the energy to keep moving forward.

Michael Kalberer

You need to inspire people.
Who Better Than Me?
My speaking endeavors have allowed me to inspire professional athletes Wesley Walker and John Tavares of the NHL to help me raise funds for the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

You need to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act in the workplace.
Who Better Than Me?
As a New York State Licensed Social Worker (LSW) in my role as a case manager and compliance coordinator at Family and Children’s Association, I assisted individuals living with mental illness to obtain and sustain employment in workplace environments conducive to success.

You need to hire someone who personifies perseverance.
Who Better Than Me?
When I was diagnosed with Retinal Degenerative Disease, a career counselor told me I was “unemployable”. Throughout my search for employment, I ventured to form my own company, Michael J. Kalberer Presents. Now my life’s work is to educate people to maximize their personal strengths and see others as more than their condition. I’ve also written an interdisciplinary curriculum to assist professionals working with people with disabilities in diverse environments.

Who better than me? Michael Kalberer Entrepreneur, Self-employed

You need to instill an attitude of teamwork to increase productivity.
Who Better Than Me?
While I was on the Community Advisory Board of the Hofstra University Healthcare Challenge, I instilled an attitude of collaboration that directly catalyzed the victory during the competition.

You need to hire someone who can show that diversity is a strength and not a weakness.
Who Better Than Me?
I’m Michael J. Kalberer. I transcend cerebral palsy and Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis.

Toni Grundstrom

In 1993, when I graduated with a BA, I planned on getting a job and “changing the world”. That ideology changed quickly as I walked into interviews with a cane. I was asked back for a 2nd interview knowing that I was not going to get the job, employers just wanted to make it look like they did not discriminate against me. I did get a job with the MN State Bar Association where their forward thinking allowed me to telecommute, and I worked there for nine years.

Self confidence, being determined and the ability to be flexible is what I learned over the past 26 years to remain in the workforce as a professional with a disability. Toni Grundstrom Sr. Communications Specialist, WeCo Accessibility Services

My health changed by then and I was using an electric scooter to go into interviews. Employer’s perception of me as a disabled person had not changed. I viewed myself as a professional with a disability but they continued to see my disability first. I decided to stay home and find income opportunities on the Internet. Then I came across a WeCo Accessibility Services job opportunity. Once hired at their entry level job I was quickly promoted to fill a position my education and experience allowed.

Self confidence, being determined and the ability to be flexible is what I learned over the past 26 years to remain in the workforce as a professional with a disability.