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Some reassembly required: The best therapy after my stroke was the chance to work again

A lot of companies miss out by not hiring people like me. As a bonus for hiring people with disabilities, employers gain the most loyal employees they’ve ever had.

The author at work.
Courtesy of the author

I grew up in the 1950s in a suburb of Chicago, with the usual young boy dreams. I thought about becoming the next Flash Gordon or Commando Cody. I was pretty good with my hands and enjoyed making new toys and paper inventions.

Because of my dexterity, I worked in the medical device industry for about 20 years doing fine, precise work under a microscope. My last job was making pacemaker parts – the silicone tip that attaches to the heart. 

Unusual numbness

In March 2009, I woke up one morning and, for a couple of minutes, I felt an unusual amount of numbness on my left side. I denied that there might be a serious problem. You know how sometimes your hand feels like it has fallen asleep? I thought I had slept on it wrong the night before, so I continued my day and went to work as usual.

Throughout the morning at my job, I noticed the numbness was getting worse. I became concerned when I was unable to get out of my chair at my workstation. A coworker called an ambulance. When the paramedics arrived and asked questions regarding the numbness, I realized that something was seriously wrong.

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The reality of the stroke hit me when I woke up the next morning and was trying to sit up in bed. I ended up on the floor, due to being completely paralyzed on my left side.

The doctors informed me that I had a deep stroke, which had damaged a large area of the right side of my brain and affected movement on the left side of my body. 

The road back

It took a lot of physical therapy, but after three months I learned to walk again. It took a year to learn to write with my nondominant hand, and I needed speech therapy so people could understand me.

I couldn’t let myself think that I might never get better, be able to move, or work again. I just couldn’t go there.

After all that therapy, there was one thing I couldn’t get back: my singing voice. I wasn’t exactly a virtuoso before, but I loved music and had a decent voice. I grew up singing in the church choir, and I also helped create short demos at Moon Sound Studios. 

Still, I was thankful for the great therapists who helped me at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, a Minnesota organization that helps people with disabilities, and the University of Minnesota. The university let me be a part of a research study to determine the effects of magnetic brain stimulation, which I found very effective in my recovery.

After two years, ready to look for work

It took me about two years of physical therapy before I could even think about going back to work again. By then, I’d depleted all my savings.

I started applying to temp agencies, but it was obvious many were prejudicial about my disabilities. It was sad to see and even harder to experience.

Just getting an interview was extremely difficult. Whenever I did, I was turned down time after time. The Courage staff, seeing how futile my job search was, found an opportunity for me at a manufacturing facility, MDI, where I work now. MDI provides jobs to people like me, with a wide range of abilities and disabilities.

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I started as a temp employee, because I was still struggling with my movements – with everything, really. And I was nervous. My left hand was like a giant paperweight. After my first slow attempts at doing assembly line work, I wondered if they were going to keep me around.

But the people at work were patient. They saw that I was driven to try to do a good job. I really was, and I still am.

Gaining strength and mobility

I started folding the trays that we make for the post office. I was continuously using my left arm, and that helped quite a bit. Now I have gained some strength and mobility in my left arm. I also got coaching from line leads and others. I always felt like I could ask for help.

Soon people noticed my attention to detail and my eye for quality. I have a background in safety, so I was able to identify potential safety issues on the factory floor. Now I work different parts of the assembly line and conduct inspections.

I like getting up and coming to work every day. When I wasn’t working, I didn’t feel like I had a purpose. Now, work is my therapy. If I couldn’t work, I’d be in a group home and depending on assistance from other people.

Some people I work with have disabilities and some don’t. But it’s really a typical work culture. I like the people I work with. We celebrate when we finish a job. We have holiday parties and summer picnics. And people here are recognized when they do a job well.

I still have my struggles – like mood swings. That’s one unexpected side effect of my stroke. Sometimes I get frustrated and angry. But I’ve learned how to work through it. Talking to my job coach helps. I’m much better now.

Now I just try to produce the best quality work I possibly can. I think my attention to quality is a benefit to our organization. It’s a good feeling for me, too.

Companies miss out

I think a lot of companies miss out by not hiring people like me with a disability. They’re probably afraid the cost of special accommodations will be too high. But I’ve heard most workplace accommodations cost less than $500. Mine have been free – like creating a cardboard jig to help hold the work in place. As a bonus for hiring people with disabilities, employers gain the most loyal employees they’ve ever had. When an employer is willing to give people like me a chance, it makes everyone feel good about working there.

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Many of my friends have disabilities. I encourage them to go out in public and to volunteer if they can’t work. Through my own experience, I found that if you stay at home, you lose track of reality and your own identity.

I’m working to improve the articulation in my hand. When my manual dexterity returns, I may go back to work in the medical device industry. I have also decided if I can’t sing anymore, I’d like to be able to learn new chords on the tenor guitar I’m restoring.

Someone told me that the less you do, the less you can do – I believe that’s true. So I’m going to keep trying to do more.

David Johnson lives in Minneapolis and works for MDI, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) social enterprise that provides meaningful job opportunities for people with disabilities. 


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