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Serving with a Disability at Shepherd’s Corner

For the past seven months, I have been at Shepherd’s Corner volunteering full-time through the
AmeriCorps program. I was unsure of what responsibilities and tasks I would be asked to do but
was fairly certain that there were going to be things that would be challenging because I was
born with a disability called brachial plexus. My mother was injured when she was seven months
pregnant and the result is that five nerves were damaged in my neck. The nerves that were
damaged affected my upper body, predominately my arms. The way this injury has manifested
itself is that my arms are weak and do not straighten out all the way and over time the lack of
strength in my arms caused the tendons in my wrists to pull my hands downward so that they are
almost at a 90 degree angle. When I was young it was a bit of a challenge because I could not
learn to do things in a normal way and was faced with the task of learning how to utilize the
muscles and skills I did have to try and thrive. My family was a large contributor to my success
in learning these things and I eventually found myself to be self-sufficient.

It is a very humbling and intimate task to be asked to write about your personal physical
disability, whether or not it is available for all to see or is something you can hide quite well. In
my experience, people with disabilities generally identify that as their greatest weakness and
strength. When someone asks you “What is your greatest weakness?,” generally it is something
that you can work on improving or a skill you haven’t learned or are learning to get better at. For
a person with physical disabilities, their greatest weakness is potentially something that they’ve
dealt with their entire life and has limited their quality of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in
almost every imaginable way. I have attempted to be open and receptive to discussing my
disability my entire life, acknowledging its very real impact on many of the things I do. While
my disability might affect everything I do, I also recognize the fact that I have had the amazing
ability to be able to adapt. Being placed in the right situations and having the right people around
me to be able to succeed in the way my body is able to is not a chance that every person with a
disability gets.

As a child, I would have never thought that I’d find myself in any sort of outdoor environment,
even though I absolutely loved spending time outdoors. Fast-forward to a 26 year old Chris
Pedersen that found work at an ecology center after obtaining a Master’s degree and we have
quite a few interesting things to talk about. This experience has been eye-opening in several
ways. First, there is an amazing amount of meaningful work that can be done by people with
disabilities in regards to environmental care and sustainability. Second, while there are a vast
amount of things that can be done by people with disabilities, there are some things that they will
need to be assisted with and oftentimes you cannot predict beforehand which things this will
include because people adapt in ways that enable them to accomplish seemingly more difficult
tasks and struggle with what would be presumed as easy. This has been the challenge that the
staff and I have been working through as I attempt to be a contributing and successful member of
the Shepherd’s Corner team.

Maybe the most unforeseeable struggle was the harsh Ohio weather this winter and my hands
being unable to withstand outdoor work for any period of time. Because my arms are lacking
insulation of any significant form, my hands get cold rapidly and stay cold for extended periods
of time. I had not attempted to do dexterous things with any longevity during the winter before
but found even basic tasks to be challenging because of how quickly I was unable to feel my
fingers. This meant that other staff members now found themselves picking up the slack that I
was leaving for them because I was unable to accomplish tasks that I had been doing with ease
during the summer and fall. To be completely blunt, it’s always hard for me to admit defeat and
give up something. It’s also hard to know someone else is doing your job now. What this looked
like for the next several months was the rest of the team volunteering to take care of my tasks
and me doing what I was able to in the meantime.

While this outdoor experience was humbling, it was also encouraging. Even though I may not
have been able to accomplish certain tasks, I began to pick up other duties to stay busy and still
found myself to be useful and productive. I began to hone other skills that will be useful in the
upcoming months and had more time to dedicate to our upcoming Farm Fresh 5K on June 9th.
While physical disabilities may be limiting, it’s only truly disabling when individuals are unable
to function in a meaningful way. The hope for a person with a disability is that workplaces and
society evolve in a way that enable them to contribute and thrive in their setting. For that to
happen, roles must be adaptable so that people can help each other when they are unable to do
something. This is when a disability simply becomes a physical impairment. At Shepherd’s
Corner, I do not feel that I have a disability because of the way my role has been molded around
me. This has been encouraging for me and I am hopeful that other workplaces will feel the same,
not only for me but for all people with disabilities, eventually.

This post was written by Chris Pedersen, our 2017-2018 Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps service member.

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