Carolyn Cannistraro

On a bright sunny spring morning, I woke up and the left side of my body went numb. Then, I lost the vision in my left eye and my ability to write. I felt terrified. But I pushed past it. I could outrun this, I thought. Then, slowly, my symptoms got worse, and I was left no choice but to acknowledge to myself that my body was betraying me.

Seven months later, on a bitter cold December evening, I received a phone call from my neurologist. He brusquely stated that I had multiple sclerosis and hung up. As I stood there, 23 years old in shock and disbelief, I thought that my life was over. However, being the driven person that I am, I knew the show had to go on.

But I made a decision to keep my diagnosis to myself forever. I didn’t want to burden anyone with my fears, and I feared that friends, colleagues, and people in the community would treat me differently. As an employee at a global financial institution, I’ve kept my diagnosis to myself for 12 years—until now.

That ever present question of ‘Why me’ suddenly turned into why NOT me? Wow, that was a powerful thought: why not me? I understood that as I addressed my diagnosis, I had not just a challenge, but also an obligation with my life. Carolyn Cannistraro Assistant VP, Banker , Global Financial Institution

That ever present question of ‘Why me’ suddenly turned into why NOT me? Wow, that was a powerful thought: why not me? I understood that as I addressed my diagnosis, I had not just a challenge, but also an obligation with my life.

I realized that  I could be of service to others, if I bravely shared my story and inspired people to keep on fighting. I knew, though, that the first step was to come clean with myself. I needed to give up blaming myself and feeling ashamed of myself. I needed to stop feeling embarrassed and inferior about having multiple sclerosis. As human beings, we often judge each other by first impressions, and as a result we sometimes miss a lot. By hiding my diagnosis, I was perpetuating many of the myths about people with disabilities. I hope that, by sharing my story, I can help combat them instead.

Carolyn participating in a ballroom dancing competition

Since my diagnosis, I have achieved success in the business world and won professional awards. Currently, I work for a world-renowned financial institution helping clients make their financial dreams come true. In my spare time, I have volunteered mentoring young women and have been a guest speaker on a weekly business radio talk show. During the holiday season, I sang with The New Chorale Society and at Carnegie Hall with Mid-America Productions (I’m a classically trained mezzo-soprano singer). Professionally, to challenge myself even further, I sat for the licensing examinations for the financial services industry and was recruited by a top wall street firm. In addition, I became a certified EMT, established a newsletter, write poetry, have pursued my dream as a ballroom dancer, and recently participated in my first New York Road Runners Race in Central Park, completing the one mile walk in personal record time.

Today, I live joyously, industriously, and vigorously. I wish to be an example through grace, dignity, and equanimity. I arm myself with courage and self-possession. I invite all people, but especially those with disabilities, to embrace the hand we’ve been dealt and to play that hand unapologetically! To refrain from being defined by our circumstances, and create from them a life that inspires. Be unafraid. Be who you are.

Barry Bannister

I incurred a C4/5 Spinal Chord Injury at 18 years old in October 1979. Still, I graduated from high school in 1980 and from the University of Washington with a Bachelors of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1987, joining Boeing Commercial Airplanes in 1988.

Head shot of Barry wearing a bluetooth headset
Head shot of Barry wearing a bluetooth headset

I started with Boeing in a pre-ADA world, and saw a company that was very willing to accommodate and help a young disabled engineer find a good place to begin a career. My 31 year journey with the company has not all been perfect or easy, but whose career is, regardless of physical ability. Overall, the company has shown a good degree of helping those who are willing to try and work and should be complimented.

It’s been a privilege to work with some of the best minds in the world with some of the best intentions to improve the world. Additionally, I have been blessed with a lot of help along the way: God, family, friends, peers and company.

Bethany Foor

I decided at a young age that I have a choice – I can be a victim and feel sorry for myself or I can find the courage to persevere in the face of adversity and succeed. Thankfully, I chose the latter.

A doctor told me at a young age that I would likely never graduate from high school due to my severe hearing loss and being so far behind with my speech and language development. I found the courage to work hard in school and be active in sports and other activities despite wearing hearing aids and living with a 70% hearing loss.

Bethany with Tony the Tiger

When I was a teen, another doctor told me my hearing loss was actually from having Usher syndrome – which is the leading cause of deaf-blindness. Now I had to find the courage to deal with the news that not only did I have a hearing loss, but I was going to start losing my vision and go blind. I continued to be active and work hard in school, and I proved the first doctor wrong – not only did I graduate from high school, I graduated with honors.

By the time I was college age, I started losing my night vision and my peripheral vision. I decided to go away to college 300 miles from home. I earned my bachelor’s degree and graduated with honors. Even though I had a severe hearing loss and was beginning to lose my vision, I found the courage to begin a professional career. I spent time working in both the health care industry and the pharmaceutical industry.

Almost 20 years after earning my bachelor’s degree, I decided to pursue my MBA degree. My graduate degree was a lot more challenging than my undergraduate degree due to the progression of my eye disease and my limited field of vision, but I was still able to achieve my goal and excel in all of my classes.

I decided at a young age that I have a choice – I can be a victim and feel sorry for myself or I can find the courage to persevere in the face of adversity and succeed. Thankfully, I chose the latter. Bethany Foor Writer Coordinator, Corporate Affairs, Kellogg's

After earning my MBA degree, I accepted a position with Kellogg in the Corporate Affairs department. When I was working on my MBA degree, I found the courage to ask someone who is successful despite facing similar challenges to mentor me. He encouraged me to consider Kellogg as he knew the company was committed to diversity and inclusion and fostered a supportive, encouraging environment.

I was nervous starting a new career, especially since my vision loss had progressed significantly in the past few years. I am thankful to have a mentor that encouraged me and I am thankful I found the courage to apply for a position with Kellogg. As someone who has a disability, I can firmly say that Kellogg lives its mission of being committed to diversity and inclusion.

While Kellogg fosters a supportive, encouraging environment, it still takes courage for me to make sure I am successful in my career. I need courage to speak up and ask for reasonable accommodations to do my job. I need courage to educate others on my disabilities and let them know how they can help me by simply speaking a little louder or enlarging their presentation so I can see it better. I also have to ask for assistance navigating through unfamiliar areas. I have found that everyone at Kellogg is always supportive and more than willing to accommodate my requests.

Even though I face daily challenges, I have so much to be grateful for. We often face difficulties we cannot control, but we can control our attitude and our determination to be courageous in order to address challenges and face adversity.

Bethany Foor with her family upon graduating with her Masters of Business Administration Degree

Cassie Liverance

Cassie poses at a L'Oreal facility

It was October 2016 when I left an important management meeting for the first time in front of my new senior management.  During the meeting, I had asked them to repeat themselves three times on six different occasions.  I remember thinking to myself, “They must think I’m an idiot!”  I replayed the scenario over and over in my mind hearing unspoken comments: “What is she, dumb?” “Is she trying not to answer the question?” “Does she not know her business?”  Of course, no one said any of that, but I was sure that’s what they were thinking.

The more I thought about it, the more I worked myself up into a panic, and realized I needed to find a solution.  I had been struggling with my hearing for over ten years.  For the last eight, I had worn a hearing aid and ignored the fact that my hearing was getting worse.  Although I had become quite skilled at reading lips and making a concerted effort to listen to what was being said, I realized I was guessing more and more at what I thought I heard.  This meeting was pivotal for me and even though no one may have noticed, I was embarrassed for the first time.

Not long after that, a video campaign called “Breaking the Silence” that described the benefits of disclosure was broadcast on the L’Oréal Internal Portal and Screensaver.  This campaign resonated with me, and I decided that I would “check the box” acknowledging I had a disability—even though before that day I had not ever considered hearing loss a disability.

When my youngest child saw my new hearing device he was very inquisitive and wanted to “try out” how much I could hear.  He ran into another room and whispered something, then shouted “Mom, what did I say?”  I told him that he had said “I love you mom” and he burst into tears Cassie Liverance VP Physical Distribution, Operations Americas, L'Oréal USA

One of the outcomes of my disclosure was that the Company, which has supported me in many ways, changed its medical benefits to cover the hearing needs of employees.  Before I spoke up, hearing aids were not a part of our benefits package (reimbursable or covered).  The devices can be very costly; I personally changed hearing aids 3 different times in eight years, with the costs increasing each time.  In 2018, after I spoke up, I was excited to “hear” the company had adjusted the medical benefits to include hearing aids and devices.

As VP of Distribution, I lead a team of 500 people to deliver $3.2 billion in goods across 10 consumer goods categories and 4 divisions. Being able to communicate effectively with my team is essential. But L’Oréal’s support has also been invaluable outside of work. When my youngest child saw my new hearing device he was very inquisitive and wanted to “try out” how much I could hear.  He ran into another room and whispered something, then shouted “Mom, what did I say?”  I told him that he had said “I love you mom” and he burst into tears – and at that moment I knew how much L’Oréal’s had provided for me.  All because I felt empowered to speak up about my disability.

How else has my disclosure helped?  I no longer feel embarrassed to ask people to repeat themselves.  I don’t hesitate to take a seat in meetings where I can hear better so that I can participate without guessing.  And I feel empowered to ask people to walk on my left so that we can walk and talk as we go to lunch. I feel free.

Vincenzo Piscopo

Vincenzo surrounded by colleagues from the Coca-Cola Company and service dog, Martina
Vincenzo surrounded by colleagues from the Coca-Cola Company and service dog, Martina

As Director of Community and Stakeholder Relations at the Coca-Cola company, I manage philanthropic relationships with Hispanic, Veterans and disability-focused partners. I also manage volunteerism for the company, our relationship with United Way, and am president of Coke’s This-ABILITY Business Resource Group. Man—it sounds like a lot written out like that.

I just happen to serve those functions from a wheelchair.

I already worked for Coke when I lost the use of my legs due to spinal cord injury. And although there have certainly been adjustments for me at work, the accident has not stalled my career. I have, however, noticed one major change in my professional life: My co-workers have become much more comfortable around people with disabilities. My colleagues, of course are all good, earnest people, but there’s no substitute for simply being exposed to disabilities in a day-to-day way. They no longer ask questions like “How will you…” Instead my disability is just another mundane part of life at the company, which has been incredibly supportive, and ensured that I have everything I need to do my job most effectively (including a release area for my service dog, Martina).

I have, however, noticed one major change in my professional life: My co-workers have become much more comfortable around people with disabilities. Vincenzo Piscopo Director, Community and Stakeholder Relations, The Coca-Cola Company

Although my accident has not significantly impacted my professional life, it has impacted me personally, and one of my proudest accomplishments is founding the Wheels of Happiness Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to supporting disadvantaged kids and adults with disabilities. Since its creation in 2011, Wheels of Happiness has helped over 100 folks (and counting) in Venezuela, Colombia, Kenya, Uganda, India, and Panama by providing medical equipment, supplies, scholarships and funds for therapy and surgeries.

As I look towards the future of my life and career, my plan is simple: to keep going. I desire to continue working in the area of Corporate Social Responsibility, and developing as a D&I executive. But more specifically, I want to help combat stigmas around minorities, particularly people with disabilities. And I’m grateful to work for a company that not only supports me in these ambitions, but actively shares them.

Rodney Christopher

As a consultant at FMA, I provide training, consulting and coaching to build the capacity of funders to engage with grantees about their financial needs. I also conduct business development for the firm, and recently started as the lead on a major project working for and with a collaborative of five of the largest private foundations.

Rodney gives a presentation to clients.
Rodney gives a presentation to clients.

To have lived the life I have is, in itself, an accomplishment I am proud of. I was raised on welfare by a single mom in a working class neighborhood of Brooklyn, and the odds were stacked against me in many ways. But I succeeded academically, and was building a nice career until a new obstacle presented: being diagnosed with a crippling mental disability.

Learning I have Bipolar II disorder – and how to live with it reasonably well – has been the biggest challenge of my life, professionally and personally. I’m grateful to my long-time therapist, Dr. Philip Spivey, because it was he who helped properly diagnose me and ensured I had appropriate treatment, including what I call my “head meds” (I’ve learned it often takes much longer than in my case for folks with my condition to be properly diagnosed).

Experiencing major depressive episodes for many weeks at a time during each of the four years till I was diagnosed, and once more in the middle of my first year of proper treatment, was soul-robbing. I was terrified that I would never be okay and capable of living a productive life. Somehow, I just kept trying. I was able to hide it for quite some time, but then I no longer could. I reached my lowest point and knew that if I did not admit myself to a psych ward I would have taken my life. It was just too hard to continue living with uncontrollable periods of deep depression, during which nothing was logical and I had no will to live.

I was fortunate to have incredibly supportive bosses. I must single out Clara Miller, for whom I worked 18 years at two different places. Her ability to respond with concern and give me space to learn about and manage my condition is a major contributor to the fact that I am alive today. I had to pull back, slow down and focus on my health. Along the way, I discovered that my condition is hereditary. On both my mom’s and dad’s sides of my family I have had relatives on the bipolar spectrum—I lost two uncles to suicide. And I learned a sobering data point: 1 in 5 people who have my diagnosis ultimately take their lives. I have now lived for more than 11 years without a major depressive episode. I have had a lot of help and it has been a lot of work. I must remain vigilant about having recovery time from intense periods of work. Without it, I could easily enter a hypomanic phase. If I spend too much time there, I run a strong risk of plunging into a debilitating depression. And I must always have patience with periodic anxiety and low moods. Clara—at Nonprofit Finance Fund and the Heron Foundation—and now my bosses at FMA, have all supported my working 4-day weeks, which allows me to manage my energy.

I was terrified that I would never be okay and capable of living a productive life. Somehow, I just kept trying. Rodney Christopher Senior Consultant, Fiscal Management Associates

Prior to joining FMA, I did not have much confidence that a new employer would consider hiring me, given my disability and because working a 4-day week is what best maintains my health. I figured that companies structure jobs to be held by 5-day people, why would they be open to hiring someone at 80%? Yet, when I embarked on the search that led to my current job at FMA, I summoned up the courage to disclose my disability early in the process. I did so largely to release the pressure I knew I’d feel if I waited to mention it either just before or just after getting/accepting an offer (should I have been so lucky), only to learn at that late stage that it would be a problem for the firm to consider my condition a disability and to be willing to accommodate it. I’d much prefer to be disappointed early. Amazingly, firms expressed a willingness to allow me to work 4 days/week.

I have continued to be open about my disability with the colleagues I work closest with. The folks at FMA have been, without exception, really supportive. Given that I am a consultant and trainer who works primarily from home it is extraordinary that I am supported and even encouraged to organize my travel in ways that allow me to manage my energy.

Earlier in my career I wanted to become a CEO or founder of a nonprofit organization. My disability forced me to re-evaluate. Today, I can say honestly that I am living out my professional aspirations. I do work that I love and am told I do well. Ultimately, I am more grateful than proud—many great people and positive circumstances appeared throughout my life that were purely good luck.

Kyle Waterworth

I was born and raised in rural Central Florida. I grew up riding horses, picking blackberries and wandering around barefoot. I spent a lot of time near or in the water. Whether at the beach, ponds or lakes – there are bodies of water everywhere down there.

Kyle hard at work on his laptop computer
Kyle hard at work on his laptop computer

I guess you could say my journey to becoming an accessibility professional began at birth. My poor vision is a result of a congenital birth defect; essentially, my optic nerves didn’t develop correctly. I also have astigmatism, strabismus, nystagmus, severe myopia, glaucoma, and even minor cataracts. When I was in middle school I lost most of the vision in my right eye over a two-year period for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, doctors at the time said it was due to glaucoma but I’ve heard 2nd, 3rd, and 4th dissenting opinions from other medical professionals since.

It was this sudden loss of vision that sparked my and my family’s interest in accessibility, and is the primary reason I enrolled at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind. Over the course of my high school years I learned orientation and mobility, including cane use, braille grades 1&2 (a little of 3 but that’s long gone), as well as using a screen reader (remember Window Eyes?), keyboard-only navigation, zoomtext, and a host of other accessibility technologies.

My journey to becoming an accessibility professional began at birth. Kyle Waterworth Accessibility Architect, Charter Communications

Also during these years I discovered my passion for music. I was the guitarist for a school sponsored rock band, “Outta Sight” (I know :P), that played all over the state. I haven’t stopped playing music since. I’m a guitarist, vocalist, drummer and DJ. I am currently the drummer for doom metal sensation Flat Earth, and regularly DJ bars and private events.

After high school I went to college at Florida State University majoring in classical guitar, however, I transferred to the University of Central Florida and graduated with a B.A. in Business and Management in 2014.

I graduated in August of 2014 and got on a plane to Denver three days after my graduation. I worked a series of terrible jobs after arriving to Denver – for example, door knocking sales and telemarketing – before finding a job at Walmart assembling bikes. I quickly climbed the ladder to Assistant Store Manager and learned A LOT about managing people and leading teams. It was while working there that I began moonlighting doing accessibility testing on a contract basis. That experience, plus knowing members of the blind community in Denver, led me to my current position as an Accessibility Architect at Charter Communications/Spectrum. I’ve never been happier at a job in my life.

Mark Balsano

Headshot of smiling Mark Balsano wearing gray collared shirt under black jacket
Headshot of smiling Mark Balsano wearing gray collared shirt under black jacket

As Vice President, Accessibility at Charter Communications, the second largest cable company in the country, I am responsible for the planning, strategy and execution of accessibility efforts and the Universal Design of the company’s products and services. Our goal is simple: to enhance the overall experience for customers, including those with disabilities. It’s not hard for me to imagine these customers’ experiences, because I am one of them.

I have low hearing, and before I started using assistive technology I’d often miss things in meetings and on calls, and found it increasingly difficult to function in the workplace. With the adoption of Bluetooth hearing aids, my hearing impairment has no impact on my work. It still takes an inclusive employer to see that, however.

It’s not hard for me to imagine these customers’ experiences, because I am one of them. Mark Balsano Vice President, Accessibility, Charter Communications

I came to Charter for several reasons, not least of which was its inclusive culture. My goal is to build the Spectrum Accessibility Office into a world class program; one that is recognized as best of the best by our industry and consumers alike! To do so, I need not only the best designers and engineers, but also people who live and breathe accessible devices. 60% of my team has a disability, and that diversity is our core strength. We are the users of the products we make.

Our largest challenge is getting people to understand the need for products and services to be accessible. I am very passionate about trying to connect people to what accessibility really means and why it’s important, and I often use personal stories to demonstrate the power of assistive technology (AT).  For me, AT has made all the difference, as it has for my father (who also has low-to-no hearing) and millions of others.  Living these experiences drives a passion for accessibility and a strong desire to improve the lives of others.

I am so proud to have had the opportunity to speak at the White House on accessibility and technology, and to have led the efforts to launch two separate accessibility offices; first the Corporate Accessibility Technology Office (CATO) at AT&T, and currently the Spectrum Accessibility Office (SAO) at Charter. Universal Design is better design for everyone, and my team helps all Americans enjoy their home entertainment—we feel pretty good about that.

Noah Al Hadidi

Noah Al Hadidi posing with service dog
Noah posing with his service dog, Amiga

At seven months old, Noah Al Hadidi lost his eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa, a rare inherited degenerative eye disease. From then on, Noah’s story would be one of perseverance and determination.

Throughout his childhood, Noah’s family sought to help him regain his eyesight using the techniques and resources available to them in his native country, Oman. At 4 years old, his parents burned him on the back of his neck and head in hopes of improving his vision. Although the treatment was ineffective, the scars remain, as do the memories of his visits as a young boy to hospitals across India and Dubai – none of which were able to help him.

During the early 1990’s Oman did not have the resources available to support blind students. And so, at 7 years old, Noah accepted a scholarship from Oman’s Ministry of Education and left his family to study at Saudi Bahraini Institute for the Blind in Bahrain. He spent ten years in Bahrain and traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2005 to complete his higher education three years later.

A common belief in the Middle East is that vision is required to understand science and math. [I] wanted to prove them wrong. Noah Al Hadidi Accessibility Architect, Charter Communications

According to Noah, a common belief in the Middle East is that vision is required to understand science and math. Noah wanted to prove them wrong.  After graduating high school in 2008, he decided to continue his education and pursue a degree in Computer Science. After months of writing letters to Oman’s Ministry of Higher Education, the organization finally granted him a scholarship to study in the United States.

In 2009, Noah sold his mobile phone to pay for his visa to the United States. In his own words, “Being blind, my mobile phone is the main way I am able to communicate with friends and family, and so, this was a really difficult decision.” Noah flew on his own to Colorado, and, determined to improve his basic English, enrolled at Colorado State University (CSU) in 2010, beginning his studies with the Intensive English program. Throughout college, Noah worked with different departments at the university to improve courses and websites for people with disabilities. He graduated in 2015 from CSU with his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and in 2017 with his Master’s degree in Computer Information Systems.

Noah challenged a number of cultural barriers in the years following his arrival to the U.S.: He got a guide dog named Amiga, defying the common perception that dogs are unfit as pets. He became the first blind person from Oman to study science. Noah’s success even inspired Oman to send more students with disabilities to the U.S. to study science.

Noah was hired as Charter’s first Accessibility Architect in 2018. Within his first year at the company, he obtained five professional certificates in accessibility. Noah’s goal is to help Charter become the most accessible company in the U.S. for both customers and employees.

James Gilliard

Years ago, when people would ask me to describe how my vision was, the best analogy that I could give them was ‘how a photo looks when it’s gotten wet and then dried’. Essentially, I was telling them that it would be faded, blurry and distorted.

Photo of James Gilliard at event high-fiving a teammate
Photo of James Gilliard at event high-fiving a teammate

That description was from more than twenty years ago. In the intervening years, my vision has greatly declined due to RP (retinitis pigmentosa). It’s gone from being able to read normal books and papers to needing a small magnifier to relying on technology to be ‘normal’.

Having a strong background in computers and technology, I started my own IT consulting company (Meow Productions) in 2001. After graduating from college, I began working within the payment industry (CardConnect Cardnetco). At the beginning of both these work endeavors, things worked reasonably well — a large monitor, a CCTV device at home and a Magnabrite in my pocket made things workable.

I think the biggest reason I've been able to succeed while the vision continues to decrease is my ability to adapt. James Gilliard Senior Consultant / President, CardConnect Cardnetco / Meow Productions

However, as time progressed and my vision decreased, these weren’t enough. Slowly I had to start relying on others to help with forms and paperwork that I used to be able to do. I also noticed that it became harder to make out things on the computer screen. When these occurred, we found ways to adapt so that others could help me with the paperwork, along with finding a better monitor.

Thankfully when the next major changes occurred in 2011, technology was there to help soften the blow. Between major parts of our processes becoming paperless, technology such as the Pebble and an even larger screen, things continued pretty much ‘status quo’.

Almost 10 years from that point, I think the biggest reason I’ve been able to succeed while the vision continues to decrease is my ability to adapt. There are so many different pieces of technology that I now use on a daily basis. And the technology is only going to get better as time goes on, making ‘normal’ life more obtainable.

Over the last several years, one important benefit of working has been a sense of purpose. Even when there are bad days, it’s much harder for me to say ‘I’m just going to go hide from the world’ since I know that my colleagues and clients are counting on me. Being able to work through those times has also helped to build confidence to try other things I would have never though possible.

Recently, this has included an unplanned and unexpected athletic career. The snowball started with a single 5K and has now grown into 12-15 Triathlons and 8-10 5Ks per year. It’s been and continues to be possible because of the support of Dare2Tri, Challenged Athletes Foundation, Team RWB, Achilles, Naperville Noon Lions Club and a long list of other supporters, all of whom I’m extremely grateful to. The family and support networks that I’ve built because of this are and will continue to be extremely beneficial as the vision decreases. And I know that because of their support I’ll find ways to continue to adapt and be able to work even when I no longer have sight.

I believe that ANYONE with a disability can and WILL be a valuable part of any company’s workforce if they’re willing to try. An employer believing that they can be creates a huge win for both of them. It also helps others have the desire to ‘come out of the shadows’ and talk with employers when they see friends with disabilities succeeding in their new positions.