2016 Journalism Contest
2016 South Carolina Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities Journalism Contest winning essay.
Part of Them—
Not the Heart of Them
by Benjamin Carter
North Augusta High School, Augusta, SC
Spend a few minutes with Tony Kirkland and Mychelle Mitchell and you’ll appreciate their unique personalities and contributions to workplace and community.
Tony’s a 911 dispatcher who spent years helping people in their worst moments.
Tony’s a hard-worker who moved his way up the ladder to IT Specialist and Data Analyst and now helps coworkers solve problems of a more technical nature.
Tony’s a good friend to many who loves hanging out, catching movies and helping others.
Tony’s a dreamer who has sky diving at the top of his bucket list.
Oh, and by the way, Tony’s also one of over 760,000 Americans who have cerebral palsy.
Mychelle’s a dedicated South Carolina correctional officer.
Mychelle’s a high scoring recruit about to begin her service in the United States Air Force.
Mychelle takes on life’s challenges with the same enthusiasm as her hobbies of kickboxing and karate.
And Mychelle has also been battling ADHD since her youth.
“Blessed to be able to give”
Tony refuses to be held back, even though cerebral palsy may require the use of a wheelchair. He couldn’t imagine staying at home and not doing anything. And the counselors at South Carolina Vocational Rehab (SCVRD) were one of the resources he used to build his skills, work towards a Computer Science Degree and be fully functional in the workplace.
It didn’t take long for SCVRD to find Tony’s strengths. Right away they noticed his charismatic speaking voice, friendly tone and excellent communication skills — skills that helped him find his job as a 911 operator for North Augusta Public Safety.
His condition is congenital, or since birth, and is a disorder in the brain and interferes with movement. He and others with cerebral palsy experience stiffness, difficulty moving and a tightness of muscles called spasticity that draws up the limbs.
“I was around in the 80s when it wasn’t popular to hire the disabled over the non-disabled. Voc Rehab was the trailblazer in opening doors.” Tony said. “Voc Rehab encouraged employers to hire persons of disability and educated them on tax breaks and incentives.”
For North Augusta Public Safety, it was good advice.
Since his hiring as a dispatcher in 1993, Tony has been promoted to positions in IT Support and Data Analytics.
“I think my favorite part of my work is the communication, and having the ability to translate technology into English,” Tony says. “I am blessed to be able to give my coworkers a resource that doesn't normally exists in most work forces, a bridge for the gap between IT and non-IT personnel.”
Tony’s vibrant personality and technical knowledge is well known among his coworkers.
Lt. Tim Thornton has known Tony for over 10 years and has interacted directly with him at Public Safety for the past three years.
“One of the things I admire most about Tony is that he makes people happy in whatever he does,” Thornton said. “He finds great joy in finding ways to make work easier for others.”
Lt. Thornton says Tony’s cerebral palsy prevents him from some things, but he definitely excels in so many other ways.
“He realizes his physical limitations but knows his strengths mentally and uses it to assist our front-line officers in the field,” Lt. Thornton said. “Tony is a classic example of treating people the way he wants to be treated. If he can help, he will.”
Focused on Making an Impact
Mychelle’s a fighter.
She works hard at a tough job and even spends her spare time exercising the power and control of kickboxing and karate, but her biggest fight has been against Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Like nearly 11% of children ages 4-17 in the United States, Mychelle was diagnosed at a young age with ADHD. Dealing with this mental disability is not just a problem for kids in school.
Approximately 5% of adults have and continue to battle the disorder — that represents over 11,000,000 people in the United States. ADHD occurs in both men and women and in the majority of cases, persists throughout their lifespan.
SCVRD didn’t just help her find ways to finance her college education. SCVRD helped Mychelle learn practices and pursue jobs that bypassed her disability.
“Voc Rehab started me out with a packing job and wages that were based on out-put in an allotted time frame,” Mychelle said of her job readiness training in the agency’s center. “It helped me work through distractions and stay focused.”
The focus she learned through the packing task helped her earn a job as a corrections officer at the Broad River Road Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C.
Now Mychelle is pursuing another dream — to be in the Air Force.
And focus SCVRD helped her develop also helped Mychelle get very high scores on her Air Force entrance exams.
Mychelle’s disability has helped her develop a much more important part of herself – her strength. Even her hobbies of kickboxing and karate foster that strength and her drive to improve focus.
“You have to be strong to be ready for anything thrown your way,” Mychelle said.
She rejects the preconceived notion that with a disability, things can’t get better.
“In some cases if you work hard enough, like in my case, things can get better.”
Working to Defy the Odds
Over 100,000 workers like Tony and Mychelle live in South Carolina, do their jobs, and live their lives productively despite a disability.
Unfortunately, of the 350,000 people, ages 18-64, in the state that have some sort of disability, the other 250,000 of them are unemployed.
Like Tony and Mychelle, most of these individuals have a desire to become productive, tax-paying members of the workforce.
That’s where South Carolina Vocational Rehab comes in.
According to SCVRD, clients become taxpayers instead of tax consumers when they become employed, and being employed reduces their reliance on government disability benefits. Another benefit to the state is that they no longer rely on Medicaid because they will be receiving health insurance coverage through their new jobs.
Those clients want to come home at the end of a workday with the satisfaction of having earned their own way and the freedom to enjoy the other aspects of their lives.
Through disability management, training and job search resources, SCVRD is helping make the success Tony and Mychelle have found a reality for many others.
“It makes their lives so much better because they get to take care of their families,” said Cynthia Clark, Transition Coordinator for the Aiken County SCVRD. “It also gives them the confidence to make them feel good about themselves, and when you feel good about yourself, then you will come to work and produce and become an asset for that company.”
“They become more productive citizens, because they are able to give back just as someone assisted them and allowed them to be more independent,” Clark said.
The counselors at SCVRD share their clients’ goals for leading balanced, fulfilled lives.
"Just because I have a disability, doesn't make me a disabled person," Tony said. "As cheesy as it sounds, I feel like if I'm not striving to make the world a better place then I'm just wasting time."
Mychelle believes that no matter what her challenge, she can make a difference in her own future.
“Learning never stops,” Mychelle said. “You learn something new every day.”
The capabilities they cultivate and the positive persistence to do more are a far more important part of people like Tony and Mychelle than their disability.
Tony’s a person who feels no limitations in bettering himself and those around him.
Mychelle is a person who focuses on and fights for success.
SCVRD is gaining ground every day to help more Tonys and Mychelles.
Clark, Cynthia. Personal Interview. January 29, 2016
“Congenital Cerebral Palsy.” | Treatments,Causes ,Diagnosis,Complications. Newsome/Melton, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <http://www.brainandspinalcord.org/cerebral-palsy/types/congenital-cerebral-palsy.html>.
Kirkland, Tony. Personal Interview. December 29, 2015
Mitchell, Mychelle. Personal Interview. January 21, 2016
South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department. Vocational Rehabilitation Overview. West Columbia, SC: South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department, 2015. Print.
Thornton, Tim. Personal Interview. January 25, 2016