Next up in our interview series is Jean Marie Lawrence. I have known Jean for a few years now, and I think I can safely say she is one of the fiercest people I know. She is never afraid to speak out for what she believes in, and is never, from what I can tell, shy about taking chances. This is her story.
Tell me a bit about yourself, what you enjoy doing in your free time, and your disability.
I was diagnosed with Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy when I was 7yrs old. Living with a disability has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. Most of the time it’s just another part of my life. A big part of my identity, sure, but it doesn’t usually affect my day to day attitude or things I choose to do. Not in a negative way at least. But it has its moments. Disabled people are human just like everyone else. Non disabled people forget that, and over exaggerate our bad days. But they’re just that. Bad days. Life is tough sometimes. But I love every experience, good and bad and in between. They all have something to teach me.
In my free time, I enjoy being a nerd and an activist. I play Dungeons and Dragons, read everything from Jane Austen to JK Rowling, and I spend a lot of time out with friends. When the weather is sunny and at least 75, I’m outside by the pool with a good book and good music. As an activist, I fight for the rights of people with disabilities, women, the lgbtq community, and animals. I guess you could say I stay fairly busy.
What do you do for a living?
I am an Emergency Management Planner in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Office of Safety and Risk Management. I work to help ensure that students, faculty, staff, visitors, and our physical infrastructure (buildings, etc.) are prepared and remain safe during emergencies. This includes writing emergency plans, conducting trainings on various emergency/disaster topics, ensuring event safety, and testing plans and procedures through emergency exercises.
Why did you choose that job or career?
It sort of chose me actually. I’ve always been good at planning and organizing. But I was also really passionate about civil and human rights. I majored in Political Science as an undergrad, and after graduation I was headed right back for a Master of Public Administration. Politics and government was my original plan. I was in a dorm room fire my senior year. I received second degree burns on my left forearm. I had literally laid in bed among the flames unable to get out until help arrived. If my roommates hadn’t informed first responders where I was, I don’t know what would have happened. This event really opened my eyes to the amount of planning people with disabilities need to do to prepare for emergencies. I was so shocked to see similar stories in more dire situations, and with very different results. That summer, I attended the 20th Anniversary of the ADA in Washington D.C. During the conference I met Marcy Roth, who at the time was the Director for the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). I told her my story and the problems I saw with planning for the needs of the disabled community in disaster situations. She urged me to consider becoming an emergency manager. A few months later, during my MPA program, a fellow student began encouraging the same. The next year I did my internship in emergency management and I was hired immediately after graduation to work for a private firm doing research and writing hazard mitigation plans.
Being an emergency management planner is fun and exciting. It’s challenging, but intellectually instead of physically. The decisions I make and things I write have the potential to impact my community when/if an emergency occurs. It’s very empowering.
What do you love about your job and what do you find difficult?
I guess I sort of answered this one above, but my favorite parts are the challenges and the fact that no two days are the same. The most difficult part is the stuff that comes up in the middle of the night that we might have to respond to. I haven’t had to yet, but it’s definitely my biggest concern and I have an (untested) plan for what to do when the time comes.
What’s your favourite memory of your career so far? What are you most proud of?
My favorite memory so far would honestly have to be the day I got this job. There’s a ton of exciting and favorite moments I could mention, but this is my first full time job, and it’s pretty much my dream job at the moment. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing, I have great coworkers, and I’m challenged constantly.
I think I’m most proud of the exercises I’ve organized. They take a lot of work to put together. We’re a small office, so most projects are predominantly solo. Emergency exercises can be complex, and I’ve organized two so far.
Did you go to college? Where did you go?
Yes. I got my B.S. in Political Science in 2010 and my Master of Public Administration in 2012. Both from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
What kinds of accommodations did your college give you, both in and out of class?
In the classroom, I was always permitted my laptop or other word processor for note taking. I also had a table in each classroom to use in place of a desk.
Outside of the classroom, I had a wheelchair accessible dorm room. Every year maintenance would remove the existing bed to make room for my hospital bed. And each of my assistants were given keys and access cards for the building. The university was always really good about helping any organizations I was a part of make sure all their events were accessible.
What was job hunting like? Do you think your disability had any affect on your job hunt?
Job hunting was awful! I got really lucky with my first job after grad school, because the owner of the company knew my internship supervisor. I was offered a job without any interview. But when the projects were done, there wasn’t much for me to do. I ended up really unhappy, working at a call center for a while because I couldn’t get any interviews. And the interviews I did get went nowhere. I absolutely think my disability played a factor. I don’t think it was the only factor, because I was still considered entry level as far as my experience went, but it was definitely part of the struggle.
What accommodations does your workplace provide?
When I was hired they had nothing for my position, so I got to hand pick everything I needed. My desk was raised up 4 inches. I got a wireless mouse and keyboard, and an electric stapler. Most importantly, I got a small heater for my desk. Every morning our administrative assistant helps me get my coat off and grab coffee.She also helps me at lunch and getting ready to leave. When she’s not available someone else is usually around.
What are some things that make your job difficult, in relation to your disability?
Probably the hardest day to day things are running to meetings in other buildings during the colder weather. My muscles cramp up and I end up in a lot of pain. The hardest thing overall though would have to be on campus extra early during graduation. I have to coordinate with my assistant for the drastic change in schedule.
What advice would you give to someone with a disability who wants to go into your field?
You don’t have to major in emergency management to work in this field. I’m proof of that. In fact, having a disability in this field can be seen as a huge asset because of the unique perspective you bring towards emergency planning. Take all the free classes you can from FEMA’s online portal: https://training.fema.gov/is/. They will teach you a lot of the basics. Volunteer for the Red Cross. And never hide your disability. In this field, being able to think on your feet (so to speak) is important. And disability definitely helps foster that, so consider it one of your strengths. I’m only a facebook message away for anyone who wants to know more.