October marks the National Disability Employment Awareness Month­ (NDEAM) – and this year is of significance because it is the 75th observance of NDEAM. This is also the 30th year of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

DTE Energy recognizes these important anniversaries that help those of all abilities have access and opportunities in the workplace and beyond.

Teresa Ayala-Fabian, a Senior Strategist, IT Specialist in the Office of the CIO, shares her story of living with a disability and stressed more than once the importance of speaking up about it.

Teresa Ayala-Fabian

“People are dealing with difficult things every day, but we don’t talk about it.”

Part of the hesitation of speaking up comes from the stigma attached to what a “differently-abled” person may be dealing within their life. Speaking up is what Teresa attributes as a major turning point in her life.

“Because of the way I was raised, there was this internal stigma,” she shared. “To admit weakness, or to admit that you need help, to use words like disability meant that something was wrong with you and you should be ashamed of that. And although I’ve always disagreed, I didn’t realize how much it affected my interaction with people.”

The invisible disability

Disabilities aren’t always visible. Just ask someone who suffers from depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, or a learning disability. One could say that it’s easier to address a physical limitation because people can see it. But having to admit out loud that you’re dealing with something can be frightening.

The turning point

A couple of years ago, Teresa took a major step and decided to confide in a colleague that she trusted.

“I was really nervous to talk about it. But I had to take a step back and understand that having limitations, accepting limitations, letting other people help you when you need help, doesn’t mean that you’re weak.

I decided to confide in my colleague, a friend that I trust, about the invisible disabilities that I deal with,” she recalled. “Because I’ve always been responsible for growing teams, my friend suggested that I might have a responsibility to other people to share my story.

When you’re in a position of leadership (formal or informal) you have an opportunity to open doors for folks who may not be able to open them for themselves or maybe nervous to talk about it because of the stigma around the illness. So, I started having this nagging feeling that I should do something.”

Then several years ago an unforeseen and unexpected medical event changed her life even more. Due to that event, she now had a visible physical limitation that she couldn’t hide.

“Up until this point, with the invisible struggles, I was able to look like I had it all together when I really didn’t feel that way. I was hard on myself, always trying to cover things and not ever asking for help.

I realized that the support of your peers, leaders, and your team is everything. It changes the whole game when you’re going through a difficult period.

Teresa says she was surprised at how eager people were to learn. She found that when she was open, able to be visible and put herself out there, her team wanted to learn how to interact with her and what she needed and didn’t need.

“Being able to have those open moments, knowing that my coworkers were looking out for me and also recognizing times when I was fully capable of being an independent contributor, was a growth opportunity for all of us.”

Teresa’s courage to speak up had a positive impact on her team.

Connecting with Abilities in Motion

After the medical event, Teresa found herself having to do some research.

One of the resources Teresa found solace in was the Abilities in Motion (AIM) Employee Resource Group at DTE.

AIM promotes a culture that embraces differently-abled people in an effort to inspire and advocate for a supportive, accommodating, safe, welcoming and inclusive workplace so everyone can advance their contribution at DTE Energy.

“One of the things I really appreciate about AIM is the education the group provides in the workplace around disabilities, emphasizing putting the person first,” said Teresa. It’s a person who’s dealing with a thing, not a person who’s defined by that thing.

Speak up

“I encourage folks, which is part of the reason why I wanted to get comfortable with telling my story, to speak up, in whatever the circumstance is. Speak up. It’s the only way we make each other better and ourselves better.

No matter what it is that you’re dealing with – an issue at work, or personal, or you don’t understand something, you need training for something – whatever it is, just speak up and you’ll be surprised at what you’ll get. Even if what happens isn’t what you wanted, you’ll be so proud of yourself for just speaking up.”

Want to learn more about how DTE is working to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace? Read more about our efforts here.

Written by Robin Thompson, Corporate Communications

Sherri Kolade, Corporate Communications, contributed to this report.