How does a one legged black girl from San Diego become a competitive skier and Olympic Medalist? Apparently someone created a picture of success to guide her. 

Bonnie St. John was the luncheon keynote at the RIMS 2014 convention Monday here in Denver, CO. She was the first one legged African American woman ever to compete on the US Paralympic team. In her presentation she recounted the challenges of growing up poor with a disability. St. John lost her leg at the age of five.

St. John ultimately did not let that get in the way of her success. In addition to winning three medals (two bronze and one silver) at Innsbruck in 1976, she is also a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, and an accomplished economist who served in the Clinton administration. She humorously described her upbringing and unconventional ascension to skiing for the audience, and recounted the things that helped put her on that path. One of the most poignant parts of her story involved her mother.

They lived in a poor section of San Diego, her mother an english teacher. She did not know her father, who abandoned the family before she was born. One day when she was ten, her mother came home from work with a piece of paper and said “this is for you”. It was a picture of a one legged person skiing. At first, St. John had no idea where her mother got that picture, or why she felt compelled to show it to her. As indicated, she humorously said she was “a one legged black girl from San Diego, had never seen snow, and you know we don’t like the cold.”

But ultimately she realized that her mother was drawing a picture of success for her to envision and follow. She was being told that simply missing a leg should not keep her from excelling at whatever she chose to do. She credits that vision, that “picture of success” as being one of the key elements in her pursuing things that might have otherwise never been in the cards for her.

There were certainly other elements that helped her. A strong and willing mentor, good friends and the love of family; but it struck me that it was the “picture of success” drawn for her that so motivated her in her life. 

It is a picture largely missing in the workers’ compensation claims process of today. Our industry is mired in negative talk of restrictions and limitations; emphasizing things that injured people can no longer do. We do not speak in terms of the possible; only what can no longer be. Thinking about that during St. John’s presentation, I wondered who in our industry is creating a picture of success for these people? Who is helping them envision a new life that accommodates their impairment?

Sadly, not many. It is not historically part of the equation. Our industry is technical and functional. It is not driven by emotion or a strong desire to motivate. That must change. The advancing disability mindset means we can no longer afford to simply run the claim by the numbers with no defined goal other than closing the damned thing.  

We must define the possibilities. We must set the expectations. And we must create the picture of success to help guide the injured to a productive return to society. Many injured workers in the system are not much different than a young one legged black girl who had never seen snow. They are impaired, they are scared, and they can’t see the forest for the trees. 

By creating a picture of success, we can help lead them from the woods, to a positive future. We can and should work to help them see the what can be, instead of what will never be again.

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