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Disability Awareness: American Express Hosts Discussion with J.R. Martinez, Sophie Delezio and Bethany Hamilton

Photo: Courtesy of American Express
Photo: Courtesy of American Express

For 30 years, International Day of Persons with Disabilities has celebrated the rights and well-being of people with disabilities – and mobilized support for equity.

American Express continues to drive awareness on this day and beyond through the theme of “Recognize More: Proudly Backing Disability Inclusion.” To mark the occasion this year, Team Amex held panel discussions for colleagues with J.R. Martinez, an Army veteran, actor, author, and burn survivor; Bethany Hamilton, a professional surfer, author, and shark-attack survivor; and Sophie Delezio, an inspirational speaker, contributing columnist to Body+Soul magazine, and survivor of two serious traffic accidents. Each of these advocates talked about the challenges and triumphs of their disabilities.

“We define people by their disability without recognizing their full scope of ability,” said Martinez.

As a child of immigrant parents, he says it was always his dream to give back to his country by serving in the armed forces. At age 19, Martinez was wounded when his military vehicle hit a roadside bomb in April 2003 causing him to have 32 surgeries over 34 months.

Instead of viewing this life-changing experience as a hinderance, Martinez says it was the most liberating moment of his life, propelling him into the person he is today with new perspective and purpose. “Whatever you’re going through right now, it is a phase, and it is a moment. It is conditioning you for the next challenge, the next thing in life,” says Martinez.

Hamilton’s life-changing moment came as a 13-year-old in Hawaii. In a rare shark attack, she lost her left arm while surfing. “I never thought it would happen to me, but it gave me a deep sense of gratitude for life,” she says.

While re-learning many basic skills that can often be taken for granted, Hamilton says she leaned on her faith and family, but was terrified the attack would rob her of her passion: surfing. It did not.

One month after the attack, she returned to her board and a few months later returned to competition.

The first of two life-changing moments for Delezio came in December 2003, when a car crashed into her Australian daycare center. She survived losing both legs beneath her knee, one hand, her right ear, and suffered burns to more than 80% of her body. She was two years old. In May 2006, she was victim to another traffic-related crash when she was hit by a car while crossing the street, which resulted in a brain injury.

While she did feel left out at times growing up, Delezio credits her family for carefully curating a life that was just as “warm, happy, and beautiful” as anyone’s.

“I grew up the way every other child grows up. My disability was a factor and that meant I just had to have more plans,” said Delezio.

Carolyn Martin, Sophie’s mom and caregiver, also joined the conversation and says their community helped calm the shockwaves brought on by her daughter’s injuries and helped the family adjust to what she called a “whole new world.”

“Seeking and asking for help is a key takeaway that I look back and go, ‘that was one of the hardest things,’” said Martin. Learning how to say thank you and accepting help is how they’ve successfully managed for nearly 20 years since the accident, she says.

Martinez, Hamilton and Delezio have shared their stories with millions worldwide, despite the difficulty and trauma they experienced. One of the biggest challenges they’ve each faced is being seen beyond their disability.

Martinez said, “We may be individuals who recognize we have disabilities on some level, but, at the end of the day, we are people, parents, spouses, entrepreneurs – and if you pay attention to those things and move beyond disability, you realize that all we’ve done is diss the ‘dis’ in ‘disability’ and prove to the world that we’ve got nothing but ability.”

Hamilton encourages others to “master the art of kindness” and when interacting with those living with a disability, she offers this advice in the acronym “ARM”: “Accept that you don’t need to know everything someone has been through. Resist the urge to stare. Master the art of kindness and move on with your day.”

“Trust the person who has the disability because they know their disability the best, and there’s no textbook that can describe one person’s needs. Just get up and ask. That simple,” said Delezio.

In honor of this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which was observed on December 3, we’re also recognizing our colleagues with disabilities who are members of our Disability Awareness Colleague Network. Learn more about their unique journeys and how an inclusive workplace lets them show up with purpose by clicking here.

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