Q&A with Keynote Speaker Heather Abbott

Tasha PattersonCompliance Conference, DMEC News

Q&A with Keynote Speaker Heather Abbott

DMEC welcomes Heather Abbott as keynote speaker for the 2022 DMEC FMLA/ADA Employer Compliance Conference, Mar. 21-24, in Los Angeles. Abbott is a human resources professional who learned firsthand the valuable role leave management professionals can play in a person’s return to work after she sustained injuries during the Boston Marathon bombing.

She shares a teaser of what’s to come in this Q&A with DMEC.

DMEC

Your foundation website references the power of positive thinking. Will you give us an example of how you’ve experienced it, and what it means to embrace this type of philosophy 

Abbott

Whenever we enter unchartered territory, its easy to think about what could go wrong. Its just as easy to think about what could go right, but too often thats not our focus. When Im feeling sad about something related to my limb loss maybe something I used to do that I cant do now, like jump out of bed in the morning, or something I used to wear that Im no longer able to, like shoes without backs instead of letting myself spiral downward, I try to focus on all the good things that have happened in my life that would not have happened if a wrench hadn’t been thrown in my path: the wonderful people Ive met, the charitable work Ive engaged in, and lives Ive had an opportunity to touch. Thinking about the significance of those things makes living with shoe limitations seem like an easy sacrifice. So often, the way we deal with loss is all about perspective.  

DMEC

How can leave management professionals help others use the three ingredients (resilience and the help and support of others) you cite as helping with your recovery? 

Abbott

In their work, leave management professionals have a unique ability to pay it forward.Often the employees theyre working with at any given time are experiencing the leave of absence/return to work associated with their disabilities for the first time. But its likely not the first time the leave professional has worked with someone in similar circumstances. They can leverage their experiences to help accommodate other cases and pay forward successes, like unique reasonable accommodations. They can also speak from experience to reassure employees that there is a way for them to get back to work successfully. 

DMEC

After the bombing, when you were asking for help, you have said you wondered, Who is going to help me? People are literally running for their lives. How has that experience — of people who did help during such a scary time — influenced you?  

Abbott

There were many, many people who risked their lives to help save others the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. Many more than those who made that day so terrible. And help certainly didnt end then. Countless others contributed in one way or another to the healing of those of us who were injured. Its a constant reminder of the good that exists within people, when the bad is often whats in the media. I try to think of the good that Im certain is going on behind the scenes whenever I hear of tragedies on the news now. 

DMEC

Would you share some information about the experience that could help guide your colleagues? What were some of the things that supported your return? What were some of the things that hindered a successful reintegration to your team and work?  

Abbott

I went back to work four months after the bombing. My company did lots of great things to ensure I was able to work comfortably and effectively. They asked me what I needed and made everything on my list happen [including] a new laptop bag on rollers, the ability to work from home a good deal of the time, and a parttime schedule to accommodate my many doctor appointments and physical therapy. At that point, the bombing was fresh in everyones minds, and [the company was] really willing to bend over backwards to help me get back to work. It has been almost nine years now since the bombing, and my company has since more than doubled in size because of a recent merger. Not everyone knows of me anymore, so when I made a request through the companys ADA request portal several months back, there was no special treatment. It took months for someone to get back to me. Its the first time Ive experienced the frustration that so many others likely feel at work when theyre made to feel that their request to accommodate their disability just isnt that important. All ADA requests should be met with urgency. This both makes the employee feel heard and valued as well as improves their productivity. In the end, its really a win for the company. 

DMEC

How has your experience shaped your opinion of the role human resources (HR) professionals can play in a successful return-to-work process for someone who has a disability?  

Abbott

My experience working in HR as a person now with a significant physical disability has changed my perspective quite a bit, in particular [with] the importance of work and a return to normalcy for people who have been in my shoes. Prior to my injury, I can recall often wondering why certain employees would go to such extremes to work when they could easily qualify for disability income and/or longer leave periods. Now I get it. For many, part of the healing process involves getting back to life as known prior to the disability — not having another thing taken away and having the ability to be in control again.    

DMEC

DMEC recently published an article about allyship and intersectionality. The author, a DMEC member, talks about the need to bring patience to every situation because of what she describes as “invisible disabilities” incurred from a traumatic brain injury. What are your thoughts on creating allies in the workplace and other ways teams can support people who have disabilities and are returning to work?  

Abbott

I think the support of ones team is critical to someone returning to work with a disability. Team members who practice patience and show a genuine interest in the returning employees well-being can make a big difference in the ease of adjusting to a new normal at work. In this litigious day and age, its understandable that some colleagues may feel uncomfortable getting too personal with another employee, especially as it relates to a disability. But ignoring it completely can come across as a cold lack of regard. Its important to find the right balance and ask other colleagues for advice if youre unsure of what to say to the returning employee. 

DMEC

People say perspective is everything and you are in a unique position to advise professionals in the absence management and disability field. What is one piece of advice you’d give them?  

Abbott

The piece of advice Id give is to remember that not everyone is born with a disability and that while one day a person could be perfectly ablebodied, life could throw a curveball at any time and change that path. Have empathy because you just never know. You may find yourself in the position of the person on the other end of the phone one day. 

To see Heather Abbott’s full keynote session, reserve your spot at the 2022 DMEC FMLA/ADA Employer Compliance Conference