Navigating the Worlds of Education and Employment with a Disability

Special guest blog post by Maureen Marshall, Electrical Engineer


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Having cerebral palsy (CP) definitely has its challenges and there is no denying that, but there are also so many possibilities for achievement in both education and where that education leads you down your career path.  I was diagnosed with CP at the age of 2 and, though my parents were told I may never attend regular classes in school or actually ever learn to read and write, I proved everyone wrong and successfully attended regular classes– even advanced classes because I pushed myself to prove everyone wrong and excel.  I graduated, not once but 3 times: I graduated from high school; I have a Bachelors of Science degree in Electrical Engineering, a Master of Business Administration degree in Technology; and a Certificate in Strategy and Innovation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).


Believe it or not, the biggest challenge I had in school was with the teachers.  While I was in elementary and middle school, I was forced out of orchestra class because I did not hold the bow correctly and I failed typing because I did not type with both hands.  In both cases, neither teacher was willing to recognize that I physically could not do what they wanted me to do, nor even the fact that I was able to succeed through modifying the way I performed the task.  Not having full use of my right side, I held the bow with a firm grip; no pinky finger up and I typed with one hand; not both. 

As I moved through high school and college, I learned to not register for classes that would be a physical challenge for me and cause further pass/fail issues, such as gym and swimming classes.  It was not worth the fight with the school administrators to get them to accept my limitations.  Instead, I enjoyed sports with my friends, who accepted these limitations and took swimming classes on my own where there was no pass/fail criterion.  When it came to choosing a field of study in college, I recognized that I would need a career that focused on my strengths and one that I could advance in.  I always loved and did well in math and science courses, so engineering was the path I chose to take– which I have had great success. Engineering allows me to use my knowledge and experiences, with little or no physical activity. There are so many different engineering positions and fields to chose from– one can definitely find one that fits not only their strengths but their abilities.  I have also found that industry is very accommodating to those with disabilities and will make every effort to ensure all obstacles are removed.  For instance, if you chose to work in a manufacturing plant, where getting around can be difficult, they have been known to install elevators or even mark walkways to allow wheelchair accessibility.

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I’ve experienced some interesting moments from the time I graduated to now– and one I’ll never forget is my first interview!  During the middle of the interview, I had to leave the room to get a form at the request of the person interviewing me and, when I came back to the room, I landed flat on my face.  For some reason, from the time I left the room to re-entering it, someone had placed a 2×4 board across the bottom of the doorway, which I tripped over when walking back into the room.  Mortified and embarrassed, I decided to get up as quickly as possible, gain my composure, laugh (instead of cry) and simply comment, “Well, that wasn’t there before!” and move on with the interview like nothing happened.  To this day, I will never know if that was an interview tactic or a simple mistake of someone working in the office area.  However, I am happy to say I got the job and I think a lot of that had to do with how I handled that situation! 

I have never called out my disability to any potential employers or future colleagues and over the years very few have inquired, even though it is very noticeable.  What worked for me, is taking on every situation, like there is nothing limiting me, and simply ‘adjust’ as needed.  An obstacle I have to overcome on a daily basis is when I am with a group heading either to a meeting or out to lunch and they head for stairs.  I will simply let them know to meet me by the elevator or ask where I could meet them after I find the elevator.  I have to say I have been very blessed with employers and colleagues that have never called out my disability either.  Do not get me wrong, there have also been a few challenging moments throughout the years too.  

Several years back, there was an incident where I was out of the country for a business trip. While at dinner with a group of colleagues, one of them decided to call me “Crip” (a term short for cripple).  I was shocked when I heard this reference and especially from a superior.  At first, I ignored what I heard, hoping I was mistaken.  However after he repeated it several times, I quickly stated in return, “I am sorry.  Are you talking to me?  Because if you are, I do not answer to that, nor does my disability change who I am and why we are here.”  Unfortunately for him, he continued to refer to me as “Crip,” even after my request throughout the dinner.  All I could do was continue to ignore him.  I was very surprised that the others around the table never participated nor tried to stop him right then and there.  However, once we landed back home and returned to work, he was fired on the spot because they had addressed their concerns with our Human Resources Department without me knowing– taking quick care of the issue. 

I have also had bosses that have treated me differently than others, not because of my performance, but because they were not comfortable with my disability.  In cases like this, I have learned it’s best to move on and get out from under them as quickly as possible– take actions in my own hands and find a new position.

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In today’s day and time, if one is treating someone differently– not promoting them, holding them back from situations or otherwise– it’s their problem and not yours! 

In the end, I am very proud to state that I am witness to the fact that the professional environment for persons with disabilities has improved over the last 20 years.  More and more buildings are accessible and employers are welcoming the diversity in the workplace.  Unfortunately, there will always be those that still need to be educated on acceptance of persons with disabilities.  The good news is that we are the change agents and it is up to us to teach them that those with disabilities are very capable of being high performers.

If I were to offer advice to students with disabilities who are interested in careers in engineering and technology, it would be– do not let anyone or anything stop you! 


Marshall is from Royal Oak, Michigan and has been married for nearly twenty years. She has three sons and has held a career as an Electrical Engineer in the automotive and defense markets for more than twenty years.