Written by Harald Sattelberg
Daniel Shafie oversees the Sales Promotions department at Schneider Electric’s office in Wiehl, Germany, leading a team of six colleagues. In June 2015, a serious sports accident caused irreparable damage to Daniel’s cervical vertebrae which led to paraplegia. Since then, he has been paralyzed from the chest down with very limited hand function. Although this disability means that continuing in the same way before the accident was almost impossible, we have worked with him to find ways to enable Daniel to return to his job and retain an excellent colleague. Daniel returned to the office at the beginning of 2016, after only seven months of rehabilitation. In this interview, he tells what effect the accident has had on his everyday working life and why it is worth keeping up the fight. You will also understand why diversity and inclusion matter at a workplace .
Harald Sattelberg (HS): Daniel, your job requires a lot of traveling. Tell us about the logistical and organizational challenges that come with your professional life.
Daniel Shafie (DS): I travel a lot for work, that’s true. My work requires a high number of appearances in person, be it for customer visits, meetings, trade fairs or national and international events. At the beginning of my rehabilitation, I heard another wheelchair user say: “You’re a wheelchair user now, you can forget doing things quickly from here on!” And what can I say, that is very true. My day starts with the question: “How do I get from A to B, what will it be like when I get there?” — are there stairs; can I get through the doors; is there a bathroom; and so on. I take my wife with me on most trips, she is a great help for me.
To get around I use a company car that has been specially converted for me, a VW Bus. It’s a big help. But when I am traveling and need to refuel my car, for example, it takes about 20 minutes. Pull up, gas nozzle in, pay and drive off – not for me. I must first get into the wheelchair, go down the ramp, shut the door, and only then am I ready to put petrol in. This also means that longer car journeys require a lot of pre-planning. Luckily, I have a petrol station attendant here at home who knows me by now. With his help, it only takes five minutes to fill up the car. [laughs]
HS: What was the experience like of returning to work?
DS: I was working from home for the first while. Just so I could get used to everything again. Then I discussed with Schneider Electric what I would require to be able to work from the office again. In order to make my workplace wheelchair friendly, some structural changes were needed. For example, there were no toilets for disabled people or automatic doors, so these were specially installed on my floor. But even then, trivial-sounding things like lower handles on the windows or an electrically adjustable desk were needed. On our floor, we had new flooring fitted and a relaxation area created, as well as, a handicapped parking space that was added in front of the building. I use the relaxation room if I’ve had a long day at work; I can relieve my back aches there after I’ve been in my wheelchair for a while. After all of the changes were completed, I gradually started spending more and more time working on projects on site. I’ve been fully back at the office for some time now.
HS: What does your typical working day look like?
DS: It takes 2–3 hours before I am ready to leave the house in the morning. If I am working at the office, I take the elevator to the fifth floor where all the rooms are wheelchair friendly. Then, it’s straight to the computer or the phone. My colleagues also sometimes bring me coffee or food, because it’s not so easy for me to get to the canteen.
If I am traveling for work, I have to go over it all in my head and organize everything before I leave — will I have an accessible room and bathroom? how do I get to the meetings? and so on. I was recently in Paris, and unfortunately, there was no parking and the road to our hotel was closed off. In such a case, you have to find another way to get to your destination, even if the trip was planned well. Flying by myself is also not so easy; I have to get my luggage to the check-in counter and then back to the car afterwards. And then sometimes there are unforeseeable obstacles. For example, if an evening event takes place in a restaurant that is only accessible via stairs. You can’t ask the organizers to move the meeting to another location just for you. I have also had to be carried up and down the stairs before — that’s just how it is. I have never got the feeling from others that I am somehow different or special. I’m disabled but I’d like people to embrace inclusion and just act normally.
HS: Did you have to break down any “mental barriers” after your return — was there any resentment towards you or your performance?
DS: There was no resentment, I didn’t have to prove myself again — why should there be? I still communicated with my team while I was in rehab, and the guys and girls on my team made it clear from the beginning that they were looking forward to me coming back. It is actually the other way around, I’m sure that many think “He sits in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t mean anything” — this is how values like diversity and inclusion impact on our individual daily life . In fact, sometimes I wish it reduced my workload [laughs]. I always need twice as long to prepare. For example, if I am traveling for work I must arrive a day before an event, whereas my colleagues can get up and travel in the morning.
From the beginning, it was clear that my head still worked! [Laughs] And that is my strength. If someone asks how I deal with my disability, I simply say: I am completely relaxed because it isn’t so easy to step on my toes. At first, it was rather difficult for me to know how much to disclose. Do I need to keep a low profile when we have external visitors? How do I explain that I can’t grip when shaking their hand? Or do I need to explain this at all? People are not shocked or surprised when I enter the room in a wheelchair. When I need support, I ask for it. It is totally normal for me to ask colleagues to open the milk or bring me a coffee. But I am also very specific and direct, and this helps people enormously.
HS: What has been your personal career path?
DS: I am a true East Frisian German and completed an apprenticeship as a radio and television technician, but the profession doesn’t really still exist today [laughs]. I then completed a degree in electrical engineering from the Rheinische Fachhochschule (University of Applied Sciences) in Cologne and studied in Australia. I am still involved in a mentorship initiative at the University and try to give each student tips for their own careers.
I started at Schneider Electric as a trainee in 2007 and kept pestering for a few months until I was allowed to start working as a sales representative for mechanical engineering. I was able to first gain leadership experience from our Young Potential program before going on to other stages. In 2013, I graduated from the ESSEC Business School in Paris and Mannheim Business School with an MBA. In my current position as Head of Sales Promotions, I work together with my team to make sure that we provide customer groups, such as electricians, with the best possible service and communicate with them well about our products.
This blog has been adapted from a recent article on our SE German Blog