The SC Interview Series is an effort to highlight the work creative professionals are doing that “move the needle” in how we work and perceive the world around us. The next interview in our series features Christopher Lenart, Author, Motivational Speaker, Consultant, and Disability Advocate. Christopher co-authored a book with Lisa Cesal called “They Said We Couldn’t” about how he overcame incredible challenges in his life having Cerebral Palsy to become a Computer Science graduate of University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and to eventually earn a Master’s degree in Software Engineering from DePaul University. Chris also started the website DisabilityAwareness.us to raise awareness about living with a disability and has a YouTube channel with over 165 videos covering everything from What is Cerebral Palsy? to What Makes a Good PCA (Personal Care Assistant)? Christopher has done several public speaking events and is actively pursuing consulting, helping to show businesses and organizations how they can benefit from hiring more individuals with disabilities. Christopher joins us from his office in Chicago, Illinois.
Josef Scarantino: Chris, welcome and many thanks for participating in the SC Interview Series. I’d like to begin having you tell our audience, what led you to pursue the path of computer science and technology?
CL: Thank you Josef for having me. Around 1981, the AT&T pioneers made a keyboard that had bigger keys and they needed someone who could try it. They asked DuPage Easter Seals if they knew someone who would help them out. Judy Gardner asked me if I would help so I said yes. [Editor’s note: Judy was Christopher’s first speech therapist, starting at 3 years of age.]
They brought an Apple II plus computer over and let me use it for a week. After an hour, I knew I needed a computer so they helped my parents in buying an Apple II Plus. After that, it was history.
JS: You mentioned that during college you attended a retreat at the Newman Center and that the experience had a big impact on you as a student with a disability. Tell us more about that experience.
CL: Growing up with Cerebral Palsy, making friends was not easy for me since I went twenty miles away to school. I couldn’t just go to a friend’s house after school. I had therapy twice a week after school among other things. So I didn’t have time to play.
When I heard about the retreat at church, I asked one of my friends if he and his girlfriend if they would want to go. They said sure. The morning of the retreat my friend came by looking like he was run over by a truck. He had a project due on the next Monday and his data was all wrong. He could not go to the retreat. I was disappointed. Long story short, a guy who was on the team took care of a person with a disability before, so my friend’s girlfriend and I went to the retreat and had an unbelievable time.
I was accepted for who I was. They were not being nice but liked me for who I was. Friendships grew as the years went on. My best friends still are from the retreat program.
JS: After college, you worked as a Senior Business Analyst at HSBC for nearly 15 years. During your employment with HSBC you started a diversity group for employees with a disability. How was that received and how did that eventually lead you to write a book about living with a disability?
CL: The acceptance was extremely positive. I was there for about ten years so people knew me. I heard that the people who were in New York had a group for employees with disabilities. I listened to some of their meetings on the phone. I thought Chicago should have a group. So I started to get the process going to start the group. When I started filling out the paperwork, another guy was starting to do the same thing. Human Resources introduced us and said we should work together and that was what we did.
After being let go from work, friends and other people mentioned that I should write a book. I thought no way because I hated to write. A few years ago my friend Lisa asked me if I wanted to write a book about our lives with Cerebral Palsy. I thought about it a few days and told her yes I would like to. We started working on it. The process that we had was not ideal, but the book was written. That was all what mattered.
JS: Co-authoring your book also opened you up to speaking opportunities about Cerebral Palsy, which is still a largely misunderstood disability. How has assistive technology and the larger world of innovation impacted your experience with CP? And how important is it that we encourage and incentivize more innovators to focus on disability with their products and services?
CL: Without the assistive technology. I would not be where I am today. That is the fact. I most likely would be sitting in front of the TV. To me, that is not living. People have to express their feelings and thoughts. With my iPad, I am talking to the world. Did I think I would be doing this? Absolutely not, but God gave me this gift to speak through my iPad.
We have to encourage kids with Cerebral Palsy that they can contribute to society. Yes, it is scary but you have to look beyond the fear. Who knows what they could do? I do get afraid sometimes, but I plug along anyway.
JS: More than 25 years after the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act, disability is still not always included in discussions about diversity, even though it is much more prevalent than people think. From your perspective as a disability advocate and consultant to businesses and organizations, what can people do to change this dynamic, particularly with employers?
CL: I think this question is tough to answer but is an important one. This is just my opinion, people don’t see many people with disabilities so they are scared of the unknown. How do I interview someone with a disability? What if they do well in the interview, how will we pay for everything? The list of questions goes up, so they talk themselves out of hiring a person with a disability. Again this is just my opinion.
How do we change this? The biggest way that we can change this in by educating society. The TV show Speechless is educating society with humor and experiences that a person with Cerebral Palsy face many times.
I think that there should be a conference that companies come to talk about how to employ people with disabilities. Most of the talks has to be given by companies who embrace people with disabilities. I think a few talks from people with disabilities who are successful in the workplace would emphasize that we can do the work.
JS: What advice would you have for young adults with a disability following in your footsteps who are considering pursuing higher education or a career in computer science?
CL: Go for it! Go for it! Go after your dreams and don’t let someone stop you. You can do anything that you want. Don’t forget this.
JS: Would you like to offer any closing thoughts to our readers?
CL: Remember one thing which is the number of people with disabilities is going up, so we have to educate society. If you have an event that you want me to talk at, please contact me. I would love to come. Thank you.
JS: Chris, thanks again for participating in the SC Interview Series. It has been a real pleasure. For more information on Chris’s expertise and services, contact him through his website DisabilityAwareness.us or on LinkedIn.