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Succeeding as a Freelancer with a Disability


Disability is one of those things that can happen suddenly. Or it can develop over a period of years. It can also be a fact of life that you've dealt with since birth. It's a challenge for those affected.

From hearing loss, to brain injuries, and degenerative diseases, there are freelancers working with all sorts of disabilities. The good news is that it's possible to do well as a freelancer with a disability

Learn how freelancers with disabilities can achieve great success by structuring their workflow, using assistive technology, and pushing forward with determination. Whether you struggle as a freelancer with a disability or not, read on, there are some inspiring stories that follow.

Undergoing Metamorphosis

In a matter of seconds, David Grant went from being a successful professional to permanent disability.

It happened during a 2010 bicycle ride in his hometown, Salem, New Hampshire. The young driver who broadsided David was doing 30-40 mph. The collision resulted in broken bones, torn muscles and tendons, scrapes, and bruises.

David was wearing a helmet, but it didn't prevent his brain from colliding with his skull. That made him one of the 1.7 million Americans who experience a traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year.

David was wearing a helmet, but it didn’t prevent his brain from colliding with his skull.

Like many brain-injured people, the extent of David's injury wasn't immediately apparent. Then came The Kitchen Incident. A brownie recipe he'd followed many times. David recognized the words but couldn't read them.

Welcome to TBI Rehabilitation Land, which is divided into doctors who get it, and those who don't. David has dealt with both.

And still does. Recovery is a long journey. Bicycling has been quite helpful. As David says, there's something very beneficial about “pumping oxygenated blood through a damaged brain.”

About his work, David says, “I create things.” That's David-ese for freelance writer and graphic designer, with emphasis on e-commerce websites and eBay stores. He's also the author of Metamorphosis: Surviving Brain Injury.

David now relies on what the TBI recovery community calls “compensatory strategies.” Meaning that he can't rely on memory for recalling important dates and times. If David makes a commitment, he stops what he's doing and puts it on his calendar. Why the urgency? It's because multi-tasking no longer works. These days, David calls himself as a “mono-tasker.”

Since his ability to remember previous conversations isn't what it used to be, David has become diligent about making notes he can refer to later. For a while, he used his computer's digital sticky notes, but they overran his desktop and became confusing. He now uses a cloud-based customer relationship manager as the single repository for all business notes.

David also plans workdays to coincide with his mental sharpness. It's highest in the morning, but fades during the afternoon.

David and his wife, Sarah, host a Facebook page: TBI Hope & Inspiration. They started in January, and have already blown past 2,500 likes. The Grants endeavor to keep things positive, noting that TBI stands for “To Be Inspired.”

A Bunch of Crooks

If you visit the website contact page for Judy Simpson Vorfeld's Editing & Writing Services, you'll notice that her communication of choice is e-mail. Why?

Because I have a hearing loss that is severe enough that I have difficulty using the phone. I have great hearing aids, even Bluetooth connection, but my loss at low-and mid-tone frequencies is enough that I can’t guarantee good communication. The good news is that my brain is in pretty good shape!

Hearing loss runs in her family. One of Judy's sisters and her brother also have it. Judy says,

We had a great uncle who was almost completely deaf (he used one of those horns/trumpets to hear), and we always figured out that this loss came through his genes, since no one on our dad's side had this disability.

The father's side comes with a name that pretty well sums up the family's approach to life: Crook. That's right, we're dealing with a bunch of Crooks.

Judy runs her freelancing business from Peoria, Arizona. Her clientele comes from all over the world, and they're attracted by her quiet, but firm, insistence on the proper use of the English language.

She's not the kind of editor who takes your written copy and makes it her own. You could call Judy Vorfeld a ghost writer – but she prefers being an editor.

So, what is freelancing like for Judy? I don’t have a hearing disability when I’m using email, social media, online forums or my camera,” she says.

It only occurs when the phone rings or I’m with people. I have a captioned phone (which was free), but sometimes people speak too fast, so talking on the phone and trying to understand voice mail is often a challenge.

Judy struggles with in person group meetings and has moved from doing local volunteer service to online volunteering. She has increased this type of activity to nonprofits needing help with websites and social media accounts, which allows her to work around her hearing issues.

I love my work, which is mostly editing. I feel secure when in my office, and enjoy making online friends along the way, both of clients and others who love being creative.

I am a 'glass half full' kind of person, so I can honestly say I had much of my life with excellent hearing, and now I simply try to use my other faculties to better advantage. I’m blessed with great eyesight, health, family, friends, and clients.

When not tending to client projects, Judy Vorfeld is a board member for the Arizona Center for Disability Law. This organization serves as Arizona's federally-designated protection and advocacy system.

Judy's younger sister, Jan Pierson, lost much of her hearing in her twenties. Unlike Judy, Jan's loss was in the high frequencies. But it didn't stop her from raising three children, going back to college, and becoming Calamity Jan. She's a freelance storyteller specializing in historical ghost town fiction, biographies, and autobiographies.

Storytelling led to a parallel career as an author. Thank that boy in the audience, the one who asked Jan for her story in book form. Honoring his request took five years. After Book #1 came out, Jan found the boy and gave him the first autographed copy. She has since written 10 more books. The latest is Prohibition, Prostitution and Presbyterian Pews, a lighthearted look at Washington State history.

What's Jan's take on freelancing? It's making a living with “two feet, two hands, and my big mouth!” Disability? “It makes us work harder – and fight more!”

Judy notes that “Our businesses are better because of our brother, David.” A retired pastor-turned computer consultant, David Crook helps his sisters with “everything from operating systems to all kinds of hardware...and he installs everything himself.”

Advocacy vs. Anonymity

In addition to their paid work, David Grant and Judy Vorfeld advocate for others with disability. However, there are others who prefer to keep their conditions quiet. I interviewed one such individual – call her Susan.

Susan has lymphedema. It's a medical condition that causes severe swelling in her right leg. She finds that the flexible schedule of freelancing is better for her health than a 9 to 5 job.

While Susan isn't officially registered as disabled or sees herself that way, she prefers to remain anonymous. Why? Because she doesn't want her name revealed in case an online search reveals her condition and causes any issues with getting future clients.

Lessons for the Rest of Us

With determination and hard work, freelancer with disabilities can do well today. Technological innovations like captioned phones and the internet itself enable Judy Vorfeld and Jan Pierson to communicate worldwide.

David Grant benefits from greater understanding of TBI recovery. For many years, TBI meant that you'd reach a certain plateau, and that was it. Nowadays, brain injury recovery is regarded as a lifelong process.

And David uses compensatory strategies in ways that are often endearing. During one of our interviews, he related the tale of an afternoon doctor's appointment. When the office called that morning, he said that he needed to put the appointment on his calendar. “For today?” was the quizzical response. Yes, indeed.

Do you have a disability? Share your story below?

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by leeser.

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