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NEWS | Nov. 3, 2022

NSWC Dahlgren Hosts National Disability Employment Awareness Month Commemoration

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

A 2005 automobile accident led to permanent nerve damage for James Skipper.

An autism diagnosis in elementary school took many years for Frank Kaminski to accept.

A debilitating disease hit Kim Davis-Carrington in the prime of her life while attending James Madison University.

Those are just a few of the unseen challenges that U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) employees are working to overcome and that were highlighted during the National Disability Employment Awareness Month commemoration Oct. 28 at the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren base theater.

Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) Commanding Officer Capt. Philip Mlynarski spoke during the event that featured four employees from various installations telling their personal stories to the workforce.

Mlynarski quoted Robert Hensel, who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest nonstop wheelie in a wheelchair (6.178 miles), when he said, “There’s no greater disability in society than an inability to see a person as more.”

That was one of the themes of the one-hour program, which also highlighted NSWC Crane Software Configuration Manager Thomas Burton, who was born with the more visible disability of pseudoachondroplasia, a form of dwarfism.

“National Disability Employment Awareness Month provides an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the men and women with disabilities serving within the DoD’s workforce. These individuals’ technical innovation and contributions impact the fleet and warfighter every day across our nation,” Mlynarski said. “As the largest federal research and development employer in Virginia, NSWC Dahlgren Division is committed to recruiting, retaining and advancing those individuals with seen and unseen disabilities.”

Skipper opened the presentation with his story of the vehicle accident he endured in New Orleans that left him with “more metal in my body than Robocop.”

Skipper suffered back and neck injuries in addition to nerve damage. He was placed on mood-altering medications that made him extremely lethargic and caused other issues as well. Skipper had to relearn how to walk and in 2019 his neck was in so much pain it required surgery.

Still, Skipper has been successful in his career as a contract specialist at NSWC Panama City.

“Somebody that’s in a wheelchair, somebody that has PTSD or somebody that’s in a similar situation to me, that person can do the same job as an able-bodied person,” Skipper said. “I know there are some folks out there that can do more because of what they’ve been through. So don’t discount them because they have a disability.”

Kaminski, who works in the Equal Employment Opportunity office at Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport Division followed up Skipper’s story with one of his own regarding autism.

Growing up, Kaminski was concerned about finding future employment because of his monotone voice and trouble making eye contact that stems from his autism diagnosis. He said those symptoms often make it difficult for job seekers with autism during the interview process.

Kaminski said now that he’s happily married and has established a flourishing career, he realizes that once he accepted the reality of his disability, it was the first step in getting on the right track.

“For a long time, the autistic community was something I really wanted no part of,” Kaminski said. “But I’ve since changed my view on that and now my autism is a source of pride and empowerment for me.”

Davis-Carrington was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in her early 20s. She’s now the Reasonable Accommodation and Disability Program Manager at NSWC Indian Head.

“I tried not to let it have any impact on my life,” Davis-Carrington said. “When I would lose so much weight, people were scared to come near me; I knew I had a problem.”

Crohn’s Disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes swelling of the tissues in one’s digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition.

Anxiety can trigger flare-ups and Davis-Carrington said she was often stressed until she learned one of the best treatments was maintaining a positive attitude.

“It is often hard to stay positive, especially when you’re in the middle of a flare-up or you’re in the hospital for 30 days or you try medications or different treatments and nothing seems to work,” Davis-Carrington said. “It’s easy to feel like ‘Why me?’ But I refuse to feel sorry for myself.”

Burton has learned to stay positive as well. He stands 3-foot-11 and has a difficult time navigating steps, walking for long periods of time or reaching things at work. He’s also has had back and elbow surgery and hip dysplasia because of his condition.

“I don’t complain. I don’t want to bring anybody else down [at work],” Burton said. “This is my life. I know the difficulties. I know the pain that I’m in. But I just smile.”

NSWCDD Special Emphasis Program Manager Lisa Jucha and the Special Projects Program Manager for the Equal Employment Opportunity Office, Joseph Fordham coordinated the National Disability Employment Awareness Month commemoration. 

Fordham stated the importance of the program as it teaches co-workers to have compassion and empathy toward others who may be carrying an additional burden.

“It’s about understanding that everybody has a different cross to bear,” Fordham said. “We might be able to help or support our colleagues or point them in the right direction of resources that can help them. We may be the listening ear that they need.”