SOME MEETING PROFESSIONALS and suppliers — colleagues whom you see at conferences and cocktail parties — live with chronic conditions and are constantly forced to deal with sometimes swiftly changing symptoms and problems. It's not easy to manage a meeting and a disability at the same time.
Because October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we decided to speak with five of those meeting professionals — Kimberly Ruby, manager of meetings and events, Day & Zimmermann, Philadelphia; Rhonda Daniel-Foss, meetings and special events coordinator for the American College of Chest Physicians, Chicago; Katherine Fox Ehlert, CMP, national account manager for ConferenceDirect, Los Angeles; Debbi Garrett, meeting planner with Mitchell 1, Poway, Calif.; and Karen Sabo, catering sales manager, Wyndham Garden Dallas Park Central — about how they deal with the everyday challenges that their disabilities create.
CORPORATE MEETINGS & INCENTIVES: Why don't we start by having you describe your disabilities or illnesses?
RUBY: Many people are surprised when I tell them about my illness, lupus. It's an autoimmune disease that can be somewhat unseen in its manifestation. Lupus is often misdiagnosed and mimics other diseases. I never wanted to be labeled by it — I wanted to thrive in spite of it, and not allow it to pose a shadow over my career.
One of the medications I take is prednisone, which can have nasty side effects. When you have to take it, you say to yourself, “Why did I wait so long to admit I need it?” When the side effects come, you say, “I wish I had waited longer.” Sometimes, there is not enough chocolate in the world to deal with the cravings that come. The other side effects have to do with the steroid “moon face,” which is embarrassing. When I'm taking it, some people have had difficulty recognizing me.
GARRETT: I also have lupus. Luckily, mine manifests itself mostly in my joints and muscles, without any organ involvement so far.
DANIEL-FOSS: Almost four years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At first, it was quite emotional. The hardest lesson I had to learn was to keep my stress level down and pace myself, which sometimes is difficult in our industry.
SABO: I have fibromyalgia and have been coping with it for more than 20 years. When I was doing meeting planning, I had too many reactions to drugs [to treat the disease], so now I only take aspirin and an over-the-counter sleeping pill.
FOX EHLERT: I am not disabled as such, but I do suffer from osteoarthritis and have a chronic degree of pain at all times. My arthritis is predominantly in my upper back and neck, and I do not have any visible swelling, so often I get some grief from people who aren't aware of my condition when I'm not able to lift or carry things. I find air travel difficult these days, because very few airports have skycaps and I don't dare travel with any carry-on luggage, as I can't put anything in those overhead bins.
CMI: When you travel to meeting sites or run an event, do you expect to suffer for it afterward?
DANIEL-FOSS: I haven't yet found a way not to overexert myself while running an event!
CMI: Stress goes hand in hand with meeting planning, doesn't it?
GARRETT: You're right: Stress is definitely a part of our job. (Being a single mom for the past 10 years probably doesn't help either.) This is probably why I have stayed in the corporate planning world instead of venturing out on my own. Just knowing that I have benefits and paid sick time helps with the stress. However, with that said, we have added many events this year, with me as the only planner for both meetings and shows, so my coping mechanisms have to change.
DANIEL-FOSS: Right now, I am lucky in that my MS is mild. But to keep it from progressing, I have to keep the stress down and slow it down. I take shots weekly, so this means I must take shots while on the road, and I do have side effects from them.
CMI: Would you share some of you personal coping and relieving mechanisms for pain and stress?
SABO: I do yoga to relax. I also receive regular massages, follow a strict diet of no white stuff, and work to be sure I get at least seven hours of sleep — that might even mean a power nap in the middle of an event.
FOX EHLERT: Sitting at a desk using a computer all day is very stressful, so I try to get up, walk around, and stretch. I set my calendar with daily reminders for me to do so. Additionally, I work out with yoga, and do water aerobics (very low impact), and weight training. Yoga is especially restorative with the calming atmosphere and breathing, which also reduces the pain. I also try to get a massage at least every three weeks, and I have a Jacuzzi tub in my bathroom. I think anyone with a problem with pain or stress could use my methodology.
CMI: What do you do when you have a major meeting?
DANIEL-FOSS: My most difficult meeting is our annual meeting, which draws about 6,000 attendees. We have meetings spread all over, at a convention center and at as many as three hotels. To prepare myself this year for the grueling 12 days, I have decided to see a physical therapist to help me with the proper exercise. I know that I must keep myself as healthy and as stress-free as possible, but I need to be proactive in my health care. I also will listen to a lot of classical music!
GARRETT: I have vendors (like my exhibit company) with whom I have worked for a long time. I have confidence that they will come through for me, and that helps. I always try to arrive a day early and spend the night before my meeting or show by myself. Room service and a bubble bath help. Normally, by the time the event starts, I'm so busy that I don't have time to think about how I feel. I typically get sick each time I come home, so I try to schedule a day off around that time.
CMI: Have you told your management about your disability or illness?
RUBY: My direct report knows that I have a chronic illness. It felt a little sticky, though, from a human resources standpoint, to tell her. But I felt she should know, so she has an idea of why my hands look like sausages sometimes. Also, I want people to be aware of lupus — knowledge about it helps others.
GARRETT: I have the support and confidence of upper management, which alleviates some of the uncertainty.
SABO: My director of sales has the same disorder, so she works to be sure that I do not overextend myself — and is very understanding when I have flare-ups. One thing I can say is that my move from meeting planning to catering has been good for me; the travel schedule while I was doing meeting planning was insane.
CMI: Are you concerned about discrimination? Do you try to disguise your handicap in fear that others will view you differently?
SABO: I never discussed my disease with people. I felt that it was a private matter. My flare-ups generally manifest after three to five days of solid exhaustion, so I have always made sure that I have one day to recuperate after a meeting — making it easy to hide the fact that I have this disorder. I have never been discriminated against, so I cannot speak to that.
GARRETT: As far as discrimination goes, my hands look very arthritic. I know people stare, but once we start working, they don't seem to notice. Sometimes people will come up and ask me questions about it, but I find if I answer their questions honestly, they are OK.