Ready and Able

On Nov. 26, 1994, the Jeep in which Jim Genell was traveling swerved to avoid another car, lost control and careened into a ditch. Almost everything changed for the Portfolio Center student, who was in Minneapolis to see his brother—and to visit Carmichael Lynch.

What didn’t change was his desire to work in advertising. “I thought about how I was going to get back into the game even while I was in intensive care,” says Genell, now a 37-year-old art director at Leo Burnett in Chicago. “It was not a matter of if but when.”

After four months in the hospital and three more in a rehabilitation center, Genell began learning how to live as a quadriplegic. Confined to a computer-operated sip-and-puff wheelchair, which he controls by using a tube placed in his mouth, he had to relearn the most basic things, down to eating and breathing.

Three years later, he was ready to start his ad career in Chicago. He did freelance work for McConnaughy Stein Schmidt Brown and Foote Cone & Belding, attending concept meetings in the office and using sophisticated equipment at home to create ads. “At that time, I was still fumbling along,” says Genell. “I knew I could do the work, but I didn’t know how the logistics would work out.”

But Burnett saw his talent, and in July 1998, gave Genell his first full-time job. The agency provided him with a secretary, a work space with enough room for him to maneuver his chair and equipment that allows him to work hands-free. “I was still afraid about how I was going to operate on a day-to-day basis, but they weren’t afraid,” Genell says of his bosses. On his second day, as he made the 28-minute trip in his wheelchair to the agency from the loft space a mile away that he shares with his girlfriend Kathy, an occupational therapist, Genell thought he had sold Burnett a bill of goods. “I didn’t know how I was going to pull this off,” he says. “They were pretty gutsy for hiring me. I’m an art director who can’t use my hands to draw.”

He has pulled it off. Six years later, the art director on Kellogg’s, Allstate and Lakeland guitars is comfortable and fairly autonomous. “Jim’s been a fantastic asset, and I’m really proud we’re able to accommodate him and give him what he needs to be able to be creative,” says Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer. “He makes people realize that it’s all about creativity, no matter what form it comes in. He’s an inspiration to all of us.”

Kathy, who is also an engineer of assistive technology, helped design some of the equipment Genell uses at work. He uses his head to operate a mouse mounted on his shoulder. A device on top of his monitor follows a reflective dot on his glasses, allowing him to point at keys he wants to press. And he holds a stick in his mouth so he can type on the keyboard.

Burnett, like other agencies, says it is an equal-opportunity employer that does not discriminate against people with handicaps. Still, by most accounts, advertising is not an industry that employs many disabled people—even though, as Genell points out, the technology is there to accommodate them.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies does not track how many people with disabilities work in advertising, but it assumes its member agencies adhere to the mandates outlined in the Americans With Disabilities Act. The law prohibits companies from discriminating against qualified people with disabilities in job-application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation and job training. Employers also must make reasonable accommodations for qualified applicants with disabilities, which can be mental or physical.

Only 32 percent of Americans age 18-64 with disabilities are working, but many more would like to be, says Brewster Thackeray, communications director at the National Organization on Disability. “The biggest issue we hear is employers being worried about a potential employee’s ability to do a job and fit in,” he says. “The first positive experience they have often changes their mind.”

Several agencies declined to discuss how, if at all, they aid people with disabilities or even to say whether they have such employees on staff. “Agencies think that because they’re in a service business, if they hire anyone who has a disability, that might offend their clients,” says one executive recruiter in New York, who asked not to be identified.

Yet one agency executive with a disability says he can attest to “the great accommodation” he and some associates have received at two different shops. He believes the ad industry understands it’s simply a smart business decision to hire talented executives.

Beth Silver, svp of human resources at Grey in New York, says the shop is rarely contacted by disabled people looking for jobs. Still, on Oct. 15, Grey did take part in the national Disability Mentoring Day, organized by the American Association of People with Disabilities with support from the Department of Labor. Grey hosted 10 students with disabilities, giving them information about the industry and the agency. Silver says it was beneficial for the agency’s managers, too—a chance to demonstrate leadership, develop relationships and expand their thinking.

Sharon Spielman, managing director at recruitment firm Jerry Fields Associates in New York, says in 20 years she has never been called by someone with a disability seeking a job in advertising. “It’s a shame,” she says. “Why are we not attracting people from all walks of life?”

“It’s not about qualifications,” says Jim Schneider, editor of Careers & the disABLED magazine. “It’s overcoming the barriers people have.” There are 53 million people with disabilities in America. Of those, Schneider says, two-thirds are willing to work. But of that number, only one-third can get jobs. “Employers are often uncomfortable hiring people with disabilities for fear that it will make the rest of the workers feel uncomfortable,” says Schneider. (Government agencies are a notable exception, as they are required to show good-faith efforts to hire people with disabilities, Schneider says. He points out that the U.S. Postal Service is the No. 1 employer of people with disabilities.)

Genell, who admits he had a hard time seeing past the wheelchair of a fellow student at the Portfolio Center before his accident, knows it is tough for people to break down barriers. But “it can absolutely be done,” he says. “It just takes a little creative problem-solving.”