Each weekday morning Kent Hehr and his live-in caregiver spend 90 minutes, as Hehr describes it, "putting Humpty Dumpty together again."
"It takes that amount of time to get me fed and watered," kids the Calgary lawyer, a quadriplegic for nearly 14 years after being shot in a random act of violence.
While he jokingly talks about the struggle to prepare for a day's work, Hehr has become a serious voice in helping shape people's attitudes about the role of the disabled in the workplace.
His philosophy is simple: It takes all kinds of people to create a successful business. And qualified workers should not be hired as acts of charity; but rather because they are good for the bottom line.
|Mike Dempster, Business Edge|
|Kent Hehr uses a Dictaphone to record his work for the legal firm Fraser Milner Casgrain.|
"Your best business practice is to incorporate a business that looks like your community," Hehr explains. "That's the model I've been taught to believe in.
"It's about trying to have other perspectives from other walks of life involved in your business organization, so you are not just running on one cylinder. This is how you get different ideas coming to the table."
Outgoing and likable, Hehr calls himself a "regular guy" with a penchant for the ponies, poker and pub nights with his buddies. He's maintained a positive attitude even though his life changed dramatically in October 1991, when he was seriously injured in a drive-by shooting. At the time, he was a robust 21-year-old defenceman with the Mount Royal Cougars and planning to be a physical education teacher.
However, 10 years after the shooting, he instead found himself finishing law school at the University of Calgary and articling in the downtown offices of Fraser Milner Casgrain, where he works full-time today.
His job, as well as the many community activities in which he participates - he leads organizations such as the Canadian Paraplegic Association (Alberta) - keeps Hehr on the move. Earlier this month, he was a busy spokesman during Calgary's Access Awareness Week. In an interview, he also spoke with me about his life in the business world.
Unlike Humpty Dumpty, who couldn't manage to get his act together, Hehr's tale is inspiring and insightful.
While he knows of disabled friends and acquaintances who have faced discrimination (and are having trouble finding work), Hehr recalls a different experience during his first interview with Fraser Milner Casgrain. Upfront about the accommodations he would require, the company told him they wanted to make the relationship work.
"I think one reason they were interested in me when I graduated was for my activities in the community. They said: 'Hey, here's a guy who puts a positive light on Fraser Milner Casgrain.' They look for people who are involved, joiners, people who are helping to build a community."
To accommodate Hehr, the firm built a wheelchair-accessible washroom, installed card-accessible electronic doors, and purchased voice-activated software for his computer.
Hehr has some motor functions in his upper body, but lacks the skills that allow him to write or type.
He uses a Dictaphone to record his work, and after his secretary types it into the system, he reworks the final product through the voice-activated software.
Additionally, although he shares his secretary with another lawyer, her time is weighted in his favour, allowing her to do time'-consuming tasks such as preparing files that speed up Hehr's work considerably.
Those simple steps, he says, have made him a contributing member to the firm and turned the company into a friendly place for aging and disabled clients.
"People want to do business with people who look like themselves," Hehr says. "The fact is we're an aging society ... there are more people who need better access, and also more disabled people who are in the workforce."
As the community's complexion changes, Hehr believes that some of the cultural barriers the disabled face will begin to fade.
When he began applying for jobs out of law school, he suspects some firms wouldn't interview him because he'd made it clear in his introductory letters that he was a quadriplegic.
"I don't think it was anything nasty and mean," he says. "I didn't grow up with anyone who was disabled either, and I think there's a hesitancy about what it's going to mean to a business, what it might cost. That's just the way it is, although I think it's changing."
The view of the disabled is shifting, he adds, because more people are succeeding in business, leading long and productive lives. Indeed, he knows of disabled colleagues who are running successful businesses or making decisions at the corporate level, which in itself fosters change.
In the meantime, Hehr's view is that it's up to him and others to take the lead. And it begins the instant he meets someone new.
When I arrived to interview Hehr on the 30th floor at Fraser Milner Casgrain, he rolled out of the elevator, announced himself with a big hello, a genuine smile and an outstretched hand.
Then he wheeled over to the receptionist and had her straighten his tie, all the while making jokes because he had "to look good for the picture" that was going to be taken. This "schtick," he says, is something he uses to defuse any awkwardness when he wheels into a room of 300 people and he is the only person in a wheelchair.
"I think there is a general sense of awkwardness when you're meeting a (disabled) person for the first time ... I think the disabled person has to do something to ease the other person's fears."
Besides, he says, in the real world and in business, the impression you make in the first two minutes is critical to the relationship.
"I make sure I try to get people over that initial hurdle (to understand) and see I'm just a regular guy."
(Mike Dempster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org