People with disability need to learn how to address others’ fears and be a solution: A conversation with Karen Schallert

As we have shared before, for our new Dialogue Online for Inclusion workshops we have started collaborating with facilitators with other disabilities apart from the visual or hearing impairments.

Portrait of Karen Schallert sitting in a wheelchair.

One of this new inclusionists is Karen Schallert from Germany, a former head of human resources, currently coach and speaker. She lives with multiple sclerosis since 2000.

And I had an opportunity to talk to her.

DSE: Karen, you are part of this majority within people with disability who got this condition during working age.

KS: Yes. When I was in my early thirties I went to the Tuscany. While hiking my feet were not responding as I wanted, I was inexplicably tired and my fingers were dumb.

After that trip, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It was a hard time.

While I was still at the hospital, I got a call from McKinsey. They wanted to interview me for a job and I got the job indeed one day after the diagnosis. I was very uncertain, because you don’t know what will happen with the multiple sclerosis, you don’t know if soon you will need a wheelchair…

DSE: A job offer one day after your diagnosis sounds like not the worse news possible.

KS: And couple of years after, when I got the offer to become the HR head at TGE Gas Engineering, It was the moment when I got a second diagnosis reconfirming multiple sclerosis.

DSE: How does multiple sclerosis affect you?

KS: It is a progressive condition. At that moment I had difficulties walking, but you could not really see it. I didn’t know what to do with this new job. TGE had offices in Asia and Europe and I was required to travel and mixing stress and multiple sclerosis is not a good idea at all.

The moment when I had to use a wheelchair came six years later. At the beginning it was only needed for long walks. I did not use my wheelchair at the office. I tried hard to focus only on my job. I left disability off my office. I did not want it to be part of my working life.

DSE: So you were in a survival mode.

KS: Yes, I was. At that moment I wanted to be part of those motivated career focused young professionals, and disability and my focus did not fit together in my mind.

DSE: Had you met any other person with disability at that moment?

KS: I didn’t know people with disability like me, working for a big company at a managerial position. Those I had met they had no job and were very pessimistic. I was not able to connect with them.

I attended multiple sclerosis groups but I wanted to leave immediately when I came in. They were talking about how bad life is and it made me sick.

The other place where I met people with disabilities was at the doctor which is of course a place where we are not at our best.

DSE: Did you manage to stay career-focused despite disability?

KS: My condition aggravated. I reached the point where I had to inform the company about multiple sclerosis. First, they downgraded my position from head of human resources to an HR specialist. But one year after the company divided and with that change, I became head of HR again.

The new managing board of directors did not have any problem with my multiple sclerosis. But the problem was in my mind: I felt I was a burden for the company, I was given 5 more vacation days and I may become sick more often than others.

My believe at that time was that I should not hire more people to be a burden for the company. I knew managers liked me and I knew I was doing a good job, but I was not able to see the value I added. Nevertheless, I continued working for 7 more years. 14 years total as head of human resources.

DSE: And how was your transition?

KS: When I left the company, my husband had died 3 years before, I had had a stem cell transplantation and I had been working hard to keep my job. It was really exhausting so one day I just dropped out.

Today I can only move my right hand. But I restructured my career. I became a coach and speaker, and I decided to coach women living with disability and who want to be managers.

One day, I found a group on Facebook with many people with disability. They were intelligent and cool, they wanted to conquer the world. I resonated with them.

Currently I am almost the only coach with disability who has worked as head of HR in Germany and this is my strength, I have this knowledge of how to succeed in organizational environments.

DSE: Once you told me that when you begin your talks you disclose that as a human resources manager you never hired a person with disability.

KS: When I share this, the managers think “she will not point at me and tell me I am a bad person.” It is a way to empathize.

What I try to transmit to them is what I realized once I discovered my own added value working as a head of HR with disability. Due to my condition, I was trained to look for solutions instead of spending time on discussing problems. I trained to be positive and I learned to manage the people around me.

Those are skills I have to use every day in my daily life, same as many other persons with disabilities.

DSE: You were both a HR manager and a person without disability. I am curious to know what is going on in their minds when faced with disability.

KS: When managers see people with disability, they are shocked, they do not know how to handle this person, they think “Oh gosh, this person will be a burden, I don’t have time to spend with this person.”

My focus is on taking a look to what people think and change their perception and offer solutions.

When my husband died, I asked my manager to inform my colleagues before I was back to the office. Nobody knew how to handle me. Someone hugged me, some others look into another direction, some others thought laughing was prohibited. I had to tell them how to react. It is the same case.

We don’t know how we should react to someone who is different because we feel insecure. We do not like this kind of situations. I have experienced it myself. I am a person with disability but when I had to coach a blind lady, I asked her to help me coping with this insecurity.

DSE: You remind me of a particular situation. When I was a blind child attending a regular school, I had a ritual. Every time I had a new teacher, I would approach him or her on the first day, I used to introduce myself, explain my disability – saying I can see nothing – and reassuring it was simple: “when you write on the blackboard, please speak up what you write so I can type. When we have to work on our book, please pair me up with a student so he or she can read for me.” I used to introduce my disability along with the solution.

KS: You see? It is very simple. That is one of my advices for my coachees who will attend a job interview. I tell them to make this manager feel secure. Address his or her fears. Explain to them how you will handle your working life. Make them feel it is not their entire responsibility and that all obstacles can be solved.

It is like saying: “This is me; you might think this is a problem but it is not because I will do what is needed to solve it. It is easier than you think.”

DSE: To finish, what is your vision on job inclusion of people with disabilities?

KS: It will take many years. But today this is my mission. I am planning a project with someone else who was a human resources manager and today lives with disability. We must push this process because I think we have the credibility. I can tell them: “I was where you are now.” We need to focus on those who can change the environment at organizations: HR people, decision makers and people who can change politics.

The interview was conducted by Pepe Macías for DSE.