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Work on wheels: Disproving the myths of disability

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As a Physical Therapy student in the 1970s, Thomas Holtackers learned to help individuals overcome injuries that interfered with their daily functioning.

Now a Physical Therapist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., Holtackers supplements what he learned in school with insights gained from personal experience.

That’s because Holtackers now deals with a disabling condition himself — Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease of the Central Nervous System. MS can cause movement or coordination problems, pain or tingling in the limbs, vision problems and fatigue.

The early years

A native of New Jersey, Holtackers was very active in high school and college sports. After college, Holtackers worked as a physical education teacher and coach. His career ambitions led him to enroll in the physical therapy program at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Holtackers graduated from the program in 1972 and began working as a physical therapist in one of the hospital’s intensive care units.

It was around this time that Holtackers first developed symptoms of MS. Following his diagnosis, Holtackers transferred to a unit where he could work with patients who also had MS. Gradually his symptoms worsened, so he transferred to a different area. This time, it was the Hand Therapy Center.

Finding his niche

These days, Holtackers splits his day between caring for patients in the Hand Therapy Center and working in patient education. Typically, he spends his mornings in patient education, and in the afternoons he sees patients.

“I enjoy the patient contact in the Hand Therapy Center the most,” says Holtackers. “Working with patients is the reason why I became a physical therapist. But I also enjoy developing education materials. Both are mentally challenging, yet physically accommodating.”

Physical accommodations are important for Holtackers because he can’t move around as easily as he did before developing MS. Although Holtackers is able to walk short distances with the aid of a walker, he usually uses a wheelchair — a lightweight, manual model that’s efficient and easy to maneuver. It’s the same type of chair often used in wheelchair sports, and Holtackers has used it to compete in both wheelchair basketball and racing.

Emotional toughness and a supportive Environment: Tools for getting the job done
Although Holtackers finds his work rewarding, it’s not without its challenges — both physical and emotional.

“It’s difficult to face a future of uncertainty, not knowing how the disease will progress, and it’s difficult to manage the symptoms within the work environment,” Holtackers explains. “I’ve had to develop emotional toughness to deal with the constant bombardment of my own personal doubts regarding my physical abilities. I continually work toward acclimating, accommodating and adapting to the progression of my disease.”

Holtackers credits a supportive work environment for his successes on the job.

“Many people with disabilities want to work — we want to live as normally as possible. The technology is out there to support us physically in many work environments. But without administrative, supervisory and co-worker emotional support, the atmosphere is strained and filled with resentment or animosity. These aren’t good ingredients for any work area.”

Preplanning: The key to making life easier

Outside the office, Holtackers does a lot of public and professional speaking about living with multiple sclerosis. These speaking engagements require frequent travel. The key to hassle-free travel, Holtackers says, is preplanning.

When traveling by air, Holtackers makes reservations with the fewest transfers, prearranges his seat assignment, and arrives early at the check-in and the gate. He uses his own wheelchair, usually boards the airplane first and asks airline personnel for assistance.

Dispelling myths and changing perceptions

One misperception Holtackers tries to set straight is the belief that people with physical disabilities also have severe mental disabilities.

“Most people with disabilities can think on their own, make decisions on their own, and function independently mentally and physically — just in a different way,” he says.

Holtackers acknowledges that in his job he has the opportunity to change people’s perceptions and attitudes toward disabilities. But he had to change his own attitude and perceptions first — of what he believed others were thinking of him as a person with a Disability.

“I ultimately determined that if a person is having difficulty with my disability, then that’s their problem,” Holtackers explains. “I refuse to limit my life because of fear of how others may react to my disability. At the same time, I view myself as a role model for positive attitudes toward living with a disability. I hope people see me as dealing positively with a negative circumstance.”

Holtackers offers this advice for people who are worried about working with a disability: “Maximize your ability and try to limit your disability. Accommodating a disability is often more mental than physical, especially when entering or re-entering the work environment.”

Holtackers actively encourages positive thinking.

“Attitudes toward ourselves are reflected back to us from those around us,” he says. When we’re positive about ourselves, the people around us tend to be more positive toward us, too.”

By Mayo Clinic staff

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