This discussion is not about setting up all the needed parameters to deny disability for others. It is about helping people deny their own disability; about assisting an individual who has suffered a terrible accident in assembling the necessary ingredients in order to “deny the disability” their own impairment would’ve otherwise provided.

The keynote speaker at this year's California Workers’ Compensation and Risk Conference at Dana Point was 23 year old “Soul Surfer” Bethany Hamilton. Hamilton shot to fame after becoming a successful professional surfer despite having lost an arm during a shark attack at the age of 13. She is the subject in the book and subsequent movie “Soul Surfer”.

She is billed as a motivational speaker, but I think it would be more accurate to describe her as a speaker with an inspirational story. While her story is similar in principal to others I have written about, several things she mentioned stood out as being part of an underlying formula for overcoming such adversity. It struck me that all of these factors were critical for the recovery process, and absent even one element, the end result may not have been anything like she experienced.

  1. Loving and supportive family – Her family dynamic was strong and supportive after her injury. Her parents encouraged her while letting her choose her own course. Her parents were, in her words, “awesome”. Of course, an injured worker doesn’t have to have specifically this dynamic, but they need a strong support network at home to help them through the trials they are facing.
  2. Supportive friends and community – We’ve all heard that the surfing community is an incredibly close one. This was evident as she talked of friends love and support as she healed. They were “awesome”. A supportive community of friends and associates can make a tremendous amount of difference. Interestingly, injured workers often indicate this is an area that fails them, especially if their circle of friends was based around work.
  3. Strong Employer Support – To be frank, she was thirteen when the shark attack occurred, and technically did not have an employer. However, as a highly competitive up and coming surfer, she was sponsored by Australian Boardwear manufacturer Rip Curl. Hamilton could not praise Rip Curl enough for their post accident support. She said they never abandoned her, and their continuing support was “awesome”.
  4. Direct and honest medical care – This one was pure gold. Obviously very close to the surgeon who treated her (he was “awesome”), Hamilton explained that after the loss of her arm, her doctor was honest and direct. He said to her, “I’m going to give you a list of things you can no longer do. It will be relatively short. I’ll also give you a list of things you can still do, which will be much longer. You may have to change the way you do them, but you will figure it out.” She indicated this was an important moment, giving her a positive message that things were still possible for her. I would suggest for workers’ compensation, an industry that focuses almost exclusively on restrictions and generally ignores ability, that this concept is downright revolutionary.
  5. Passion for what she did – Hands down this is the biggest challenge in workers’ compensation. Hamilton, as well as others I have written about, had tremendous (awesome) passion for what they did, and an overwhelming desire to return to it. This passion motivated them in this effort. We’ll visit this area in more detail in a moment.
  6. Strong Faith in God – Sadly, in some circles this will be the most controversial ingredient, but it was clearly evident that a strong faith influenced and motivated this young woman. She made numerous references to God’s plan for her life, and placing trust in God through her recovery and beyond. Interestingly, she didn’t actually say God was “awesome”, but we got the gist. Again, as with family support, injured workers don’t have to possess the same faith based system, but there is no doubt that a faith in a higher power serves as a strong support.

So there you have it. Awesome family, awesome friends, awesome employer, awesome doctors, awesome passion and an awesome God; the perfect storm for denying disability and defeating dependency.

That is of course, as long as we do our part as well.

Seriously, the question for our industry is simply, how do we foster these elements as we look at the entire picture surrounding an injured (excuse me, recovering) workers’ situation? How does a reformed workers’ compensation industry accomplish this goal?

In my admittedly simplistic, high level overview, a Recovery Specialist, formerly known as an adjustor, who manages cases in the Workers’ Recovery system, would employ expanded communication techniques to not only educate and assist the recovering worker, but to engage and involve their extended support network of family, friends, and even their church. They would focus medical care based on outcomes rather than short term costs (saving a bundle over the long haul, I might add), and use providers capable of focusing on ability rather than disability.

And then there is the “passion” thing. Unfortunately, a person operating a sheet metal press is likely not going to be as passionate as a surfer or a mountain climber. For our industry, the answer may lie with a concept I recently wrote about, “Return to Function” (RTF). It has been suggested, by others smarter than I, that the industry focus on a dedicated Return to Function effort instead of Return to Work. It was predicated on the fact that RTW efforts are often viewed by workers as a cheap effort to avoid financial obligations on the part of the employer. As an industry we can thank the people who believe counting paper clips is a viable job alternative for that. For workers’ who do not carry passion for work, Return to Work, particularly modified or different work, is going to be an uphill slog. No, Return to Function is where we will find potential passion to help us drive the effort.

RTF goes to the core of life quality for the recovering worker. It relates to their ability to live their lives with elements of normalcy after a severe injury. If we as an industry focus on restoring those things important to the recovering worker, we can better find the passion and motivation within them to do so.

I am not suggesting RTW is not important in the process. It is a critical element to recovery; however, it is not a motivating element for some people injured on the job. We have all seen the statistics regarding increased depression, obesity, and mortality rates of the permanently disabled. Quite frankly, returning to work is important for them, even if they refuse to believe it.  RTW just becomes in this scenario an incremental part of RTF.

One of the people I have written about previously is a great example of that. He wanted to get better simply because he did not want to live his life in a disabled, dependent state. If you want to see the power of passion related solely to a return to function, watch the video embedded with that article here. It is worth five minutes of your time, trust me.

As an industry we need to act as a chef, helping to assemble all of the necessary ingredients for a positive outcome. Family, friends, employers, doctors, passion and faith. It is a simple ingredient list, but the procurement and proper portions can be difficult. Difficult, but not impossible. In many cases we can cook up a perfect storm; a tempest to destroy a disabling mentality.

Trust me, it’ll be freakin’ awesome.

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