This blog is on topics of interest to early career professionals who work with people with disabilities. Blog contributors have diverse perspectives on leadership, professional development, and success in changing systems to better serve people with disabilities and their families. For more information on Early Career Professionals, check out the website:

13 December, 2010

Prove Yourself Wrong

Several recent postings speak of the critical importance of a mentor in one’s career. Dr. Arnold Capute, one of the fathers of developmental pediatrics, filled that role for me. He was known for memorable phrases or Capute-isms. Among the most important was one of Arnold’s frequently heard admonitions: “Don’t prove yourself right, prove yourself wrong.” Of course, he was referring to the all too human tendency to land on an idea or conclusion, then recognize only supporting evidence while ignoring refuting evidence. This is a dangerous course whether your activities are in clinical, research, administrative or policy arenas. “Your first guess is your best guess” may be good advice on a multiple choice exam, but it’s very poor advice in a health or human service career.

Many years ago, before the advent of neonatal hearing screening, I was following an infant girl with cerebral palsy. At about 3 months of age she had normal auditory brainstem response testing by an expert audiology team, so I was surprised when at age 8 months the mother and grandmother mentioned they were concerned that the infant was not hearing normally. I reassured them about the normal ABR. Six months later they returned and still had concerns about their child’s hearing. Again I reassured them, but after discussion we decided to repeat the audiometry in the next few months. Unexpectedly, to me, the repeat audiometry showed moderate to severe bilateral hearing loss. The child received hearing aids and other appropriate interventions, but had obviously lost time during a sensitive period for learning language. I had locked in on the earlier normal testing and had discounted the family’s worries about hearing – this despite the fact that I frequently spoke to trainees about evaluation of children with hearing loss and the critical importance of listening to parents’ concerns about hearing loss. I didn’t think to “prove myself wrong.”

Last month I had the pleasure of listening to a presentation on disability and employment by Dr. Bob Nicholas of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce development at Rutgers. He spoke about “Demand-Side” approaches to expanding employment for jobseekers with disabilities. We often think of disability employment as a “supply-side” problem. We have a huge supply of individuals interested in work but often without identifiable job matches. Our solutions are supported- and customized-employment strategies that are effective but often difficult to bring to scale. To increase employment outcomes for people with disabilities remains one of our field’s greatest challenges. Bob highlighted the “demand-side.” He cited the business case for hiring people with disabilities including better employee reliability and retention rates, the ability to fine tune their products to customers with disabilities and being prepared to accommodate and retain good employees who acquire a disability. He noted many national companies that are leading the way including Walgreens’ corporate goal of having 30% of their employees in distribution centers nationwide being people with disabilities. Walgreens has exceeded this goal in their southeast distribution center located in Anderson, SC and is working with other businesses to help them achieve similar outcomes. Our supply-side approaches remain necessary; we don’t need to prove ourselves wrong here, but, to bring positive employment outcomes to scale, we also need to work with businesses and our state economic development people to foster demand-side solutions.

Finally, with the ever-changing political landscape nationally, in our states and locally, we have an ongoing opportunity to “prove ourselves wrong.” New opportunities, unexpected partners and inevitable challenges will offer us the chance to take a fresh look, refine or adapt our arguments and approaches, while maintaining our commitment to work with and for people with disabilities.

My best wishes for the holidays and a thoughtful, productive 2011,

Fred Palmer