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14 Questions with Justin Richardson, Director, Advocacy Strategy Marketing & Communications and Exec
14 Questions with Justin Richardson, Director, Advocacy Strategy Marketing & Communications and Executive Director of the Numotion Foundation
Karen Roy, Numotion Brand Ambassador
This post is part of the series
, featuring interviews with advocates regarding their work and insights into the Complex Rehab Technology (CRT) industry. In this post, Numotion Director of Advocacy Strategy, Justin Richardson takes a slightly different approach. Richardson has invited Numotion Brand Ambassador, Karen Roy, to interview him.
Karen: Please tell us a bit about your story. How were you injured and when did your injury occur?
I was injured in a diving accident after a night out with friends when I was 22 years old. Ironically, I had been a competitive swimmer and ran the management division of a pool management company in the Raleigh, NC area for many years before my injury. The water was the last place I would have expected a spinal cord injury like mine to occur. That said, one careless dive changed my life forever and at approximately 3 am on the morning of August 10
, 2003, I became a C 6/7 quadriplegic.
Karen: Where did you undergo your initial rehabilitation and how long were you there? Please tell us about your experience.
My rehab journey spanned just under four months and was atypical. I spent the first eleven days post-injury at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh and then flew to Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Israel just outside of Tel Aviv where I would spend the next six weeks. My time in Israel was followed by an additional eight weeks at Craig Rehab just outside of Denver, Colorado. All three parts of my rehab journey were incredibly different with positives and negative aspects of each. However, experiencing the socialized medicine system in Israel and then immediately afterward becoming a significant consumer of healthcare in the United States was eye-opening. There is such a clear contrast between the two.
Karen: Did you seek any additional treatment after sustaining your spinal cord injury? How has that treatment impacted you? Would you recommend that treatment for other people who have recently sustained a spinal cord injury?
I did. My time in Israel was due to participation in an FDA backed clinical trial which at the time was only being conducted in Tel Aviv and Brussels, Belgium. There was an opening in Tel Aviv then which is why I ended up in Israel. I truly believe that the procedure I had in Israel is responsible for the fact that I now have near full use of my hands and arms and can feel my entire body. However, it is possible that I simply experienced spontaneous recovery. Unfortunately, that specific clinical trial concluded in phase two but was also conducted in the United States for some time before ending. My recommendation to others would be to evaluate all available options but be wary of any procedures or treatments not being conducted in coordination with legitimate governmental authorities. The wheels of regulated agencies sometimes turn slowly but safeguards governing clinical trials are in place for our protection.
Karen: You have thrived since sustaining your spinal cord injury. Were there times when you after your injury when you struggled with depression or anxiety? What were the factors that helped you overcome your fears?
While in rehab at Craig, I had an incredible rehabilitation psychologist as part of my clinical team. I know for certain that his guidance helped me adjust to my new reality as well as the loss of a long-term relationship that unsurprisingly ended while I was still in the rehab (as so many do). There have also been times since my rehab journey when I’ve sought out counseling. I feel as if it is just as important to take care of your mental health as it is your physical health and doing so has helped tremendously. However, it wouldn’t be truthful if I told you that I didn’t experience moments, or days, or even multiple days in a row where the circumstances of my injury do all that they can to bring me down. When those times arrive, I give them the moment they need and then mentally list out the steps needed to better my circumstances. This is true whether those steps are short-term or long-term. Once the list is complete, I get to work. For me, there is no other way.
Karen: People with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed compared to those without a disability. Can you tell us about your career path? What do you think helped you to find gainful employment?
While in the final months of completing my political science degree at NC State, I was in the process of obtaining a new wheelchair when my ATP asked if I had ever considered his line of work. I was intrigued, chose to interview with the owner, and soon accepted an offer to begin work as what would eventually become an Assistive Technology Professional (this was before the ATP certification requirement). After officially obtaining my certification, I worked six years as an ATP in both the western and eastern regions of North Carolina with a local provider and eventually accepted an offer to become the General Manager of NC for what would soon become Numotion. Since then, I’ve served as the Territory Manager for VA, NC, & SC and previously as Numotion’s Director of Communications and Customer Relations. I currently hold two different roles – Director of Advocacy for Numotion and the Executive Director of the Numotion Foundation. As far as employment is concerned, I think the key is the same for people with disabilities as it is for those without – make yourself as marketable as possible. We’re all aware of the proportionally low employment numbers for people with disabilities and I do believe unconscious bias plays a part in those gaps. That said, complete your education, learn something new, or seek out other ways to make yourself “stand out” from the crowd. The current environment supporting diversity & inclusive workplaces has made now as good a time as any to seek employment but none of that matters if you aren’t providing value to a potential employer.
Karen: What do you enjoy most about your role as the Executive Director of the Numotion Foundation?
I love the fact that I get to see the good in this world every single day. There are so many amazing organizations across the country doing incredible things for our community and I’m proud of the fact that the Numotion Foundation is part of this greater good. The Numotion Foundation has contributed over $1M to organizations serving our communities since its inception in 2018. With each approved application, I think of the amazing things that may happen as a result of our contribution. It truly is an incredibly rewarding way to spend a portion of my day.
Karen: What is the importance of Numotion’s relationships with our national partners?
Our contributions to our national partners are significant because of the amount and quality of the work they do in our communities. That said, I often think about the fact that in many circumstances, we are contributing to organizations focused at least in part on the research and finding a cure for those they serve. Those cures, if found, would surely make it difficult for Numotion to keep the lights on. The funny thing is – everyone I know at Numotion would be fine with that. We’d all be happy to have to find new jobs if that were the reason for doing so. The Numotion family is made up of incredible people who truly care about those we serve. It is an honor to work here and have the opportunity to partner with other organizations whose most sincere intentions are aligned with our own.
Karen: I know you have a long history as a disability rights advocate. What has been the most fulfilling moment for you in advocacy efforts?
This is a tough question. I’ve often said that being an advocate is simultaneously the most empowering and frustrating thing one can experience. It is empowering because even the most grassroots advocacy movement can create change and frustrating because it is sometimes disheartening to “see how the sausage is made.” This is especially true because common sense of disability and healthcare issues so often become divisive and politicized. As far as the most fulfilling moment is concerned, two times come to mind. In 2005, I was invited to speak at the first-ever Unite To Fight Paralysis rally in Washington, DC which was held on the Capitol lawn. It was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining, the Capitol dome was immediately behind us, and I shared the stage with then Senators Hillary Clinton and Tom Harkin, the late Dana Reeve, and other influential members of the disability community. It was on that day that my passion for advocacy was born and as we met with our representatives in Congressional offices after the rally, I realized the importance and power of advocacy. On a more local level, during my senior year at North Carolina State, I battled the athletic department and the Wolfpack Club (athletic booster club) to create an accessible student seating section on the floor by the basketball court where the rest of the students were seated at home games. I ultimately convinced them to make the change and to this day, it warms my heart to see students in chairs sitting in that section each time I attend a game or see one on tv. After big ACC wins, I’ve even seen students in chairs “rush the court.” Advocacy doesn’t have to be carried out in DC or your state capitol building. Sometimes, “small” victories can make the biggest difference.
Karen: With your extensive disability rights experience, what do you think is the most serious issue that negatively impacts the disability community?
There are so many challenges facing our community including barriers to employment and educational opportunities, the financial impact of disability, social isolation, and the lack of accessible transportation. However, because we all by definition have preexisting conditions, consistent access to high-quality healthcare including the complex rehab technology so many of us rely upon would have to be high on the list. Continuing the fight for access to CRT and the expansion of coverage for items such as standing and seat elevation should be a priority for us all. Likewise, we must seek to improve access to specialized healthcare, especially in rural communities. Fortunately, recent advancements in telehealth as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic have eased some of these burdens. I am thankful for companies like Numotion who have pioneered, developed, and embraced this technology. Through technology, our remote service, Assistive Technology Professional (ATP), and clinical partner teams have fortunately been able to provide continued service to those we serve during the pandemic and I am hopeful that insurance providers will continue such coverage moving forward.
Karen: Do you think end-user advocacy is impactful when fighting disability-related policy issues?
I’m so glad you asked this question. The answer is yes and I say so without hesitation. Our community has had several “wins” on the administrative level in recent years, especially regarding Complex Rehab Technology. However, those wins would not have been possible without years and years of grassroots advocacy and coordination with the many consumer groups representing the disability community. Of course, there will always be examples of victories as the result of high-level meetings involving our champions and allies and we are incredibly thankful for their work and dedication but no one has a seat at the table without our community putting in the work needed to get them there. We believe this is so important that Numotion customers will soon be able to sign up for advocacy alerts through the Numotion portal as a convenient way to stay connected to issues and causes directly affecting our community. I encourage all reading to sign up and join us in making sure that your voice is heard.
Karen: You are a member of Numotion’s Employee Consumer Council. Can you tell what the ECC is and about its mission? What has been the most rewarding part of your participation in the Employee Council?
The ECC is a subset of what will ultimately be a larger Numotion-wide Employee Resource Group (ERG). What will set us apart from the rest of the Disability ERG is the fact that each member of our ECC team is a consumer of the products we provide, whether that be complex rehab technology or medical supplies. The ECC provides education and input to our internal Numotion teams, evaluates potential product offerings, and provides guidance to our leadership teams as they seek out new ways to serve our community. I think I speak for all of us when stating that the most rewarding aspect of being involved in the ECC would be the clear fact that our voices are valued, respected, provide real education and insight into life with a disability, and that our efforts are truly affecting change within Numotion and beyond.
Karen: You travel frequently for work and pleasure. Tell us about the biggest obstacles you encounter while traveling with a disability?
What solutions have you come up with over the years
The thought of traveling (especially independently) in the first year or so after my injury was terrifying. For the most part, the airlines and other travel providers go out of their way to help people with disabilities get where they need to be. Unfortunately, they are working with a generic “people with disabilities” playbook, and as well know, everyone’s needs are different. If I had to give just one specific tip, I would emphasize the importance of being your own advocate. Communicate (even over-communicate) your needs and if something makes you uncomfortable concerning how either you or your mobility equipment is being treated, speak up! For air travel-specific tips, be sure to check out the
Flying With a Wheelchair
piece I previously authored which can be found in the blog section of www.Numotion.com (link at end of interview below).
Karen: I know that your beautiful daughter is the center of your universe. Many men are curious about fathering a child after sustaining an SCI. Can you tell us about your journey to fatherhood?
My ex-wife and I of course knew long before Reece was born that we would need to go through the IVF process to become pregnant. Quite honestly, Reece’s mom put in all of the hard work as she underwent an egg extraction and several rounds of medication and injections needed to prepare for the embryo transfer. All I had to do was undergo a quick outpatient biopsy. Of course, it was expensive but worth every dime. Being Reece’s Dad is the most important part of my life and surprisingly, all of the disability-related fears I once had about parenting have now flown out the window. I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of parenting is done without any physical effort whatsoever. It is about doing all that you can to help your child become a moral, happy, productive, and hopefully one-day employable adult. I read a quote long ago that said “Be the parent you needed when you were a child” and I think about that every day. Kids may enjoy “able-bodied” moments but what they truly need is so much more than your ability to throw a football in the backyard or dance while standing up at a wedding. Parenting with a disability is not only possible, but it is in my opinion beneficial to society. The unique perspectives, understanding, and emphasis on inclusion gained by children of parents with disabilities cannot be replicated.
Karen: There is no doubt that life with a disability comes with its fair share of challenges, but there are also many silver linings. I think that the positive aspects of living with a disability are often overlooked. What do you see as your biggest challenges and what has been the biggest benefit of living with a disability?
The most significant benefit for me personally has been the often overwhelming sense of empathy I now have for others and the challenges they may be experiencing. Disability is humbling and in my opinion, that part of disability is a gift. I’ve also often referenced the fact that disability is “equal opportunity” and does not care about your race, religion, sexual identity, or socioeconomic status, and for that reason, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and learn from people with disabilities from all walks of life. As for the biggest challenge, I believe it to be the bias (both conscious and unconscious) that exists for people with disabilities. I think most unfamiliar with a disability see our chairs and if being completely honest, feel at least a little bit sorry for us at first glance. However, we are our communities’ coworkers, neighbors, friends, and emerging leaders. To change perceptions, we must normalize disability and we only do that by increasing our numbers and interactions in the places where those misconceptions live. Companies like Numotion realize the value of employing people with disabilities and I believe more and more are beginning to understand the same. Education and advocacy are the keys that open those doors.