Are we there yet? VML intern Tom Babb says don't be afraid to make yourself vulnerable

The University of Kansas senior, who was paralyzed from the neck down during a family vacation several years ago, stresses the importance of opening up to people with disabilities.

Tom Babb became instantly paralyzed on December 27 2015 -- the winter after his first semester of college.

He and his family had been jumping off Black Rock at Kaanapali Beach in Maui on a vacation over Christmas. As they were swimming back to the beach to grab lunch, he took one last jump into the waves. A surge forced Tom into a sand bar and broke his neck -- crushing his C5 vertebrae and fracturing his fourth vertebrae. He was in a local hospital for almost three weeks before he was flown by air ambulance to Denver, closer to his family’s home.

Tom will never regain feeling or movement below his level of injury. He also does not have feeling in his hands. Paralyzed from the neck down, Tom is confined to a wheelchair and needs assistance with many basic things others take for granted, like eating and drinking.

After the accident, Tom said his greatest challenge was "watching everyone go back to college and not being able to join them." But he said his plans for the future had not changed: "to finish college, get a job and have a great life!"

Today, Tom is entering his senior year at the University of Kansas. He spent his summer as an intern at VML in Kansas City, Missouri, and is looking forward to continuing a career in advertising after graduation.

"His energy and positive outlook have brought more to VML than anyone could have imagined," said the VML team. "Tom is very friendly and open, and his unique perspective gave everyone at VML insight into a segment of our population we knew very little about. People with disabilities are often overlooked as we strive to be an inclusive and diverse workplace – and as we work to produce advertising that also fulfils those same goals."

Tell us about one thing that’s happened recently that leads you to believe there’s still a problem?

Right now, there’s a strong movement in our industry for more inclusivity of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientations, which I believe is important. But I’d love to see a stronger push for individuals with disabilities included.

In general, in society, there’s a lack of disabled people in the workplace and in advertising. There are only a small number of people in my situation in the workforce, attending university, and who have a degree in business. So, it’s hard for our perspectives and ideas to be heard. Because advertising and product innovation affects so many parts of our lives, if our perspectives aren’t recognized, it creates a gap.

How about something that proves we’re making progress?

We’re making progress by integrating people with disabilities into the workplace, which opens opportunities for people to learn and grow.

When I first came into the industry, I felt like I was going to be coddled due to my physical limitations. I told my team at VML on day one to create higher expectations for me than they think they should. 

What happily surprised me was how curious my co-workers were about my life. They wanted to know everything; from what it was like to wake up and get ready in the morning to how I use certain technologies every day. Generally, people are afraid to ask me personal questions because they believe that I don’t want to talk about it. I think they are just curious because they haven’t had the opportunity to ask these questions before.

VML went even further. They integrated me into other teams and encouraged me to lead lunch-and-learn sessions so that everyone could learn a diverse perspective.

Working at VML felt like I was not just there to be a checklist for diversity. I felt like I was contributing and part of the team. And that is what people with disabilities want.

What else can be done to get there?

Don’t be afraid. Life is a scary thing but making ourselves vulnerable allows us to grow. Don’t be afraid to approach people with disabilities, engage with them, even hire them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn. Don’t be afraid. People with disabilities have the same desire everyone else does – to be included.

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