Dennis Winkens is a prime example of implemented workplace inclusion: as an online editorial writer, the quadriplegic professionally writes about various auxiliary aids and services. REHACARE.com visited the 28-year-old in Remscheid (Germany) at his workplace and learned how he found his way into his job and what obstacles he had to overcome.
Since an accident eleven years ago, Dennis Winkens has been paralyzed from the neck down and is confined to a electric wheelchair. With the help of a mouth controlled computer mouse, he can work on a PC with no issues.
Mr. Winkens, you met your current employer at the REHACARE several years ago. How exactly did this happen?
Dennis Winkens: Shortly after my office administrator apprenticeship at a furniture retailer in Mönchengladbach, I visited the REHACARE 2011 on the spur of the moment and planned to get information on auxiliary aids, among other things. Eventually, I ended up at the booth of the moso GmbH. During a conversation with Klaus Gierse, our managing director, I learned that he was looking for somebody for his company's online sector at the time, who already had some knowledge of auxiliary aids and services. That was a perfect fit for me. Since early 2012, I am now here in Remscheid and also work at my home office as an online editorial writer.
What are your duties and responsibilities as an online editorial writer?
Winkens: My duties primarily include the maintenance of the company's homepage. I also write reports about our company’s auxiliary aids, such as standing devices, power wheelchairs, and seating systems for example. Needless to say, I also distribute these reports on our social media platforms. But my responsibilities also include image editing as well as creating animated presentations and videos. I am chiefly in charge of our online presence. Yet I am not just writing about auxiliary aids and services, I also test them on location and in the field. I believe it makes a big difference in a product assessment if a colleague without a disability sits in a device compared to if a quadriplegic like me tests these wheelchairs.
What specific auxiliary aids assist you in your daily work?
Winkens: My mouth controlled computer mouse is my most important tool. It allows me to operate a computer using my mouth. The mouse is attached to my desk and connected to the computer. The cursor of my mouse moves based on the motions of my mouth. If I blow into it, I make a right click, if I suck air through it, I make a left mouse click. Having said that, you can also assign other commands. In addition, I use an on-screen keyboard with word prediction to be able to write texts faster and not having to type every single letter. For longer texts, I also like to use speech recognition; typing is faster and more fluid with it. These are the basic auxiliary means I need to do my work. I also have an assistant since I am not able to operate our camera on my own. The assistant drives me to work and also hands me items.
Did your employer make structural alterations at your workplace based on your needs?
Winkens: Several aspects were being considered in the construction to make the building fully accessible so I can freely move around in it. Prior to this, we were still in a leased building where I wasn’t able to move freely. Now I can operate the elevator with my iPad to get to the upper level where my office is located. I can also move the blinds up and down with it. The exterior doors open automatically thanks to a motion sensor. To get to the workshop and the photo studio on the opposite side, the company also created a special overpass for me. I am able to move around freely everywhere I go.
What types of barriers did you encounter in the past during your job search?
Winkens: It all started right away when I looked for an apprenticeship: after I had completed my studies at the commercial college, I visited the Employment Agency to learn about my options in the working world. At first, the responsible official there suggested vocational training centers. To him, this seemed to be the easiest option since all of the costs are quickly being reimbursed. However, this type of facility would mean I am there during the week and would only see my family on the weekends. Right from the start, I told him that this is not an option for me. I am able to work at a regular office just like most other employees. That was my biggest obstacle since it took me a long time to convince the responsible official that I don't have to go to a facility. Finally, I was able to write job application letters for jobs he selected for me.
What needs to change in the future – in companies and in politics – so more and more people with disabilities can work outside of special facilities?
Winkens: In my opinion, it already starts with the job center. People with disabilities must not just be pigeonholed and put into a specific box but require individual counseling instead. We should not be solely put into a facility because we are definitely able to perform normal duties and responsibilities. What’s more, employers should be open-minded and not stonewall everything from the get-go. After all, we might work differently and with special auxiliary aids and services, but our work is not inferior. Many employers believe they have to pay for renovations and auxiliary aids on their own, but that’s not the case: there are plenty of grants and resources that help promote workplace inclusion.