International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Six Portraits

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Courage and Initiative

There are more than one billion people with disabilities living around the world. Every year on December 3, the United Nations call attention to their concerns and rights. The aim is not only to prevent discrimination but also, and above all, to promote inclusion: all individuals should be able to participate as equals in education, work, and public life. Six Daimler colleagues told us their personal stories about courage and initiative.

Benedikt Decker dreams about a road trip

Going on a carefree vacation, taking a long hike on the weekend or going shopping — Benedikt Decker wishes he could do some things that are completely normal for many of us. He has a chronic kidney disease that has required him to have dialysis four times a day since March 2015. Benedikt requires peritoneal dialysis, which means introducing a fluid into his abdomen through a catheter and removing it again in order to remove toxins from his blood. He carries out the dialysis himself.

Benedikt Decker needs to have a dialysis four times a day.
Benedikt Decker needs to have a dialysis four times a day.

But how does he organize this procedure in the midst of a normal workday at Mercedes-Benz Vans, which also includes working on his job-related study program? “Each dialysis process lasts about a half-hour,” he says. “I do one right after waking up, the next one about noon, the third one in the early evening, and the last one before I go to bed. At the office I can use the relaxation room for that. I have my equipment there and no one bothers me.” When he was hired, he discussed all this with his supervisor. His team’s schedule is planned with this in mind so that there’s no conflict with the dialysis sessions.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Benedikt has been working exclusively at home since spring. That makes some things easier regarding the dialysis — but it also makes other things more difficult. “I’ve gone into voluntary isolation, because I have a weakened immune system and I’m susceptible to infections,” he explains. That indicates what a huge mental challenge his illness entails. “The diagnosis was a heavy blow,” he says. “Today this disease is part of my daily life. But there are good days and bad ones, both mentally and physically. My biggest limitation is my lack of flexibility. I’d like to simply be spontaneous once in a while. This disease has made me do some rethinking. Material things used to be important for me, but today the important thing is time.”

Because of his illness, Benedikt was automatically put on the list for a donor kidney. The waiting time is between six and nine years as a rule, sometimes it can be even longer. But there is reason for hope: His godfather is going to donate a kidney to him. We conducted our interview with Benedikt shortly before the transplant was to take place. We asked him about his emotions. “Relief, joy, excitement, fear,” he replied. He will have to take drugs for the rest of his life so that his body does not reject the donated organ, but he will regain his former flexibility. That’s why he’s already making plans for the future. “I’m just going to start driving and taking a road trip to the North Cape,” he says. There won’t be a rigid time plan. And above all, there won’t be any dialysis.

Stefan Strobel likes to stand on the winner’s podium

Stefan Strobel was 24 years old in September 1999, when he was involved in a serious traffic accident. After three weeks in a coma, he woke up and realized he could no longer move his legs. One of his lumbar vertebrae had been broken, and he was diagnosed with paraplegia. “Back then I felt worthless,” he says. “That’s what happens if you only sit around and realize that suddenly you have far fewer friends than you used to.” But giving up was not an option.

No risk no fun: Stefan Strobel plays table tennis as a sport for disabled persons.
No risk no fun: Stefan Strobel plays table tennis as a sport for disabled persons.

During his hospital stay and the following rehabilitation program, he was determined not to get discouraged. During his therapy, one of his little toes reacted to an impulse. “I felt that something was going on there,” he says. “From that moment on, I realized that I could get my body healthy again through training, and that I would be walking rather than rolling out of the rehab center.” Fate was to reward his willpower in a completely unpredictable way: During his last few days at the rehab center he met his today’s wife.

Nine months after the accident, Stefan pulled himself up from his wheelchair by holding onto the lathe in his workshop and explained to his supervisor that he was able to continue doing his job and wanted to do so. It took him four weeks to be reintegrated into the workforce; since then he has been working full time again. In the workshop at the Daimler location in Nabern near Kirchheim/Teck he’s always on the go, and thanks to a foot lift splint on his right leg he even walks without crutches. In his job he is preparing the new generations of the electric drivetrain for the prototype factory.

“At some point I’m going to win a game.” That was Stefan’s attitude when he started playing table tennis as a sport for disabled people in 2014. That same year he won third place in the championships for the federal state of Baden-Württemberg. In 2018 he won the German championship. “Of course there were reports about me in the newspapers, and my colleagues congratulated me,” he recalls. “That really inspired me. You can do so much, even if you’ve got a disability!” In addition to monoskiing and hand cycling, he now wants to try out seated wakeboarding and kitesurfing. “No risk, no fun,” he says with a laugh.

A doctor once told Stefan that if he hadn’t possessed his particular character traits, he would still be sitting in a wheelchair today. “That’s obvious,” says Stefan. “Without my will of iron I wouldn’t have managed to do all of these things.”

Anne Becker discovers the world through all her senses

Can you imagine being 30 years old when you’re able to hear for the first time? For us that sounds inconceivable, but that’s exactly the story of Anne Becker. Anne was born without a sense of hearing. When she was a child she learned how to lip-read, and thanks to intense speech therapy at an early age she even learned to speak. “My mother had an incredibly strong will. Without that, all of this would not have been possible,” Anne says today. She went to a regular public school, and that was a formative experience. The other children would tease her. She was tolerated rather than accepted and simply didn’t belong. “Back then it wasn’t yet possible to communicate by writing text messages. My first boyfriend had to call my mom in order to arrange a date with me,” she says. Today she can laugh about it.

At the age of 30, Anne Becker learns how to hear.
At the age of 30, Anne Becker learns how to hear.

Anne didn’t give up, and she managed to graduate from high school. She then enrolled in a work-study program at Daimler. At that point she thought for the first time about implants that could improve her hearing. But back then this operation was regarded as risky, with uncertain chances of success. She decided against it. Anne received a degree in business management and started to work in the HR department at Daimler. “I really appreciate the opportunities that were opened up to me back then. That’s why I’d like companies to be even bolder when it comes to hiring people with disabilities and to open up such opportunities for far more individuals,” she says. Anne did very well in her job, but the strain caused by her difficulties in communicating was gradually increasing. By the time she reached her late twenties, she felt exhausted and became withdrawn both at work and in her private life. “I was no longer able to cope with this high level of permanent concentration, discipline, and uncertainty as to whether I had understood everything correctly,” she says. “At that point I realized: I had to change something.”

That was when Anne started to think about implants again. In the meantime, medical knowledge had made significant progress, so Anne decided to get cochlear implants. How does it feel to hear something for the first time after more than 30 years? “You have to learn very slowly how to hear and guide your brain toward the processing of the stimuli. For me, that took many months. It’s an incredible experience to realize for the first time how many birds there are outdoors. But of course this kind of change is also associated with some emotional low points. I’m very thankful that back then my team at work was so supportive over such a long period of time.”

That was four years ago. Today Anne has 70 percent hearing ability on good days. And she’s still learning. “I enjoy being among people and being able to communicate much more easily now. Besides my tremendously improved quality of life, the biggest improvement is the independence I’ve gained. I’m simply no longer so dependent on the support and consideration of others,” she says. Anne has a two-year-old daughter. It’s really an almost unimaginable story: the fact that together with her daughter she can discover the world with all her senses.

Ernest Molefi accepts the challenge

Being as independent as possible – that is the declared goal of Teboho Ernest Molefi. He has the Phocomelia Syndrome, a congenital malformation of the limbs. “My disability is not a problem for my work at Mercedes-Benz Financial Services South Africa. I only need help from a security officer twice a day, which is to load and unload my wheelchair from the car,” he says.

Ernest Molefi is engaged in the Persons with Disabilities Forum in the company.
Ernest Molefi is engaged in the Persons with Disabilities Forum in the company.

Ernest is a member of the Persons with Disabilities Forum in the company. “We enable an exchange with each other and focus on workplace accessibility. We also promote disability awareness among the colleagues, and community engagement activities. And of course we are the point of contact whenever expertise is needed on the subject of disability.” In addition, Ernest accepts invites to speak as a motivational speaker at school functions, and awareness campaigns for non-profit organizations. At the weekend, he assists his spouse with her funeral society that helps underprivileged communities. In his spare time, Ernest is passionate about soccer – even if he can't play himself. “I'm very assertive with disability topics and I do not live in isolation. In my view, this is absolutely crucial.”

Sounds like he’s arranged well with his disability? “To be honest, it's not always easy. A life with a disability comes, firstly, with a lot of patience in your daily routine. For example, I have to get up much earlier than able-bodied people to get ready for work – simply because I take much longer with my limitations and challenges. Secondly, it is time and again to make many sacrifices. For example, if buildings are not wheelchair friendly. Here I need to rely on support from able-bodied people who lift me up and down the stairs. It's not a nice feeling.“

Ernest says that he owes his current self-esteem above all to his late father. “You mature with age and understand that everyone is diverse in his or her own way. I have accepted that disability is a challenge not a chaos. Therefore I do not allow the chaos around me to determine my journey.”

Daniel Ludewig found a task for the soul

About 15 years ago, Daniel Ludewig and Michael Leu were colleagues whose paths crossed at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Sindelfingen. Daniel had noticed that Micha always sat alone during the lunch break. “So I had a thought: Now I’m going to simply ask him if we could eat together. And if he’d let me push him,” he recalls. Since then they have become good friends.

Thanks to Daniel Ludewig’s (left) initiative, he and Michael Leu (right) became good friends.
Thanks to Daniel Ludewig’s (left) initiative, he and Michael Leu (right) became good friends.

Back then, Daniel approached Micha very openly but nonetheless with caution. “Of course I didn’t know how he would react,” he says. “And I absolutely didn’t want to make him feel needy.” Daniel believes that healthy sensitivity of this kind is crucial when you meet people with disabilities. “Have sympathy rather than pity,” he says. “If you approach someone in a spirit of sympathy, you’re actually doing everything right.” In retrospect, initially it was still hard for him to avoid making ordinary but insensitive remarks. “Let’s just run over there — that just slipped out from habit, and I really felt bad about it,” he recalls. Today he knows that his discomfort was unnecessary. “Sometimes you’re much too sensitive yourself,” he says. “Micha didn’t mind it at all.”

Based on his own experience, Daniel’s advice is to treat people with disabilities in the same way you would treat anyone else: with empathy. “There’s no difference between offering an elderly woman my seat in the train or helping a wheelchair user get into the bus,” he says. In his opinion, in the workplace it’s especially easy to make contact with colleagues who have a disability. “Just start a conversation with them. If you notice that someone needs assistance, offer to help, and then help them!” he says.

Through his friendship with Micha, Daniel came into contact with the association of disabled persons in Stuttgart. Since July he has been doing support work at the association’s residential community once a week. In order to do that, he reduced his work time from 40 to 30 hours a week. This was a big step, which he took deliberately after long discussions with his wife. “That was one of the best decisions I’ve made in the recent years,” he says. Why is that? “Because it’s a task for the soul,” he answers.

Julian Müller listens

Julian Müller works in the vehicle production line at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Bremen. During his shift he stands at the assembly line, and during the break he chats with his colleagues — it’s all completely normal. But there’s one thing that makes him different from his colleagues. He has been hard of hearing ever since he was born 19 years ago. His perception of sounds is about 30 percent worse than that of a person with normal hearing. A hearing aid helps him compensate for this deficit.

Julian Müller has been hard of hearing ever since he was born.
Julian Müller has been hard of hearing ever since he was born.

“Initially my colleagues are naturally a bit hesitant, because they don’t know how they should treat me, but if you chat with them in a completely normal way and listen to them, they quickly get used to the situation,” he says. It’s all completely normal. That’s how Julian wants to be treated, because he is completely normal. If he still doesn’t understand something correctly, his colleagues simply speak a bit more clearly. That way he can also lip-read in addition to hearing them. His work at the plant is just the way he imagined it would be.

Julian applied for a traineeship at Daimler two years ago. “A translator for sign language was present at my job interview, but I didn’t really need him,” he recalls. After his application was accepted, his traineeship proceeded almost without a hitch. Julian remembers an incident: “Some seemed to react reluctantly to my hearing aid. I simply explained my situation to them. After that they apologized.”

Such incidents are not the rule, but Julian is familiar with these situations. He dropped out of his soccer club because he was being bullied there due to his disability. Now he plays in a soccer club for the hearing impaired, where he feels much more at home. “All of the members understand their own situation, and they’re good players too,” he says. Julian, a fan of the Werder Bremen soccer team, doesn’t let such incidents discourage him. “There’s no point in letting the past get you down,” he says. “You always have to look forward.” The fact that he has completed his traineeship as a specialist in metal technology underscores his positive attitude. “We’ll be hearing from each other,” Julian says with a smile at the end of our conversation.

Disability inclusion at Daimler

At Daimler, the employment of people with disabilities has been based on an inclusion agreement ever since 2002. The company creates jobs for people with disabilities and promotes their professional development. In addition, Daimler’s action plan for trainees opens up a variety of commercial and technical careers at the company for young people with disabilities.

In order to continue promoting inclusion at Daimler, this year the company joined the initiative “The Valuable 500“. The aim of this organization is to work together with 500 companies all over the world to highlight the social and economic significance of people with disabilities. By joining this initiative, Daimler has made a concrete commitment. Its focus is on promoting an empowering and inclusive work environment and helping to advance inclusion in society at large.

Editorial Team: Vivienne Brando, Richard Herder.

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Corinna Mergenthaler

For Corinna Mergenthaler, diversity is not just a buzzword. It’s her daily work. At Daimler’s Diversity & Inclusion Management, she advocates for a diverse workforce, equal opportunities, and an inclusive corporate culture. Nonetheless, she admits to embodying a few clichés about women: She loves horses, has a weakness for handbags and shoes, and her favorite color is pink.

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