On July 11, 1994, I was 15 and on vacation when I dove into a shallow part of the ocean, broke my neck into 36 pieces, drowned, and was technically dead for 2.5 minutes. My mom relates that when I came to, I opened my eyes, looked at the group, and said, “Ha, I’m not getting up from this, am I?” That’s when she knew I would forever have a strange sense of humor—and a resilient spirit.
One dive, one bone, and the entire context of my life changed. It led me to a career where I could use my creativity, energy, and empathy. When all my friends in college took jobs in construction or lifeguarding, I took an internship in advertising and knew I’d found my calling. Over the last 26 years, I’ve worked in marketing and advertising agencies on account, creative, and strategy sides and founded several successful businesses. Now I work for a consultancy helping businesses blend marketing strategy, technology, and creativity to build strong brands.
I am a senior white male. Yet as a quadriplegic, I straddle an existence as part of the majority while being obviously in the smallest minority inside of the advertising and consulting industries. Most people have worked with someone who is gay, black, or female, but they’ve never worked with someone in a wheelchair. As such, it’s something that people don’t typically know how to deal with, and it can make them uncomfortable.
This is not a fault of the individual. The problem is our society. We have lost the ability to ask difficult questions. At times, we don’t even know when to ask questions and possibly even why we should. When we can’t ask, our personal biases take over unconsciously, and we miss out on opportunities to incorporate unique perspectives that break us from the obvious answers.
In the beginning of my career, I recall nailing an interview only to not get the job. A couple of years later, I was reacquainted with the woman who was hiring for that job. She told me that even though she knew I was well-qualified, she needed to hire someone who could travel—and she didn’t know how to ask if I could do it. Was that her fault? On the surface, it is easy to say she was wrong. Realistically, she just didn’t know to ask.
Travel is one area where the unconscious bias against people in wheelchairs is, pardon my pun, a real handicap. Recently I was booked on a flight out of Cannes on a small executive airline. When I checked in, the gate attendant told me I couldn’t board the flight without any explanation. Yet here I am, a top-level frequent flier on two major airlines. I love adrenaline sports. I once completed 12 marathons in 12 months. I’m a rescue SCUBA diver. But at that moment, all the gate attendant could see was a guy in a wheelchair.
Do I reject being labeled as someone in a wheelchair? No. It is a reality and something that I embrace. And I know that whatever labels any of us might carry, we have to understand who we are and embrace them in order to overcome the assumptions we encounter. That said, I cannot assume that you know what it’s like to be in a wheelchair. I didn’t know before my accident.
This is why I am such a staunch proponent of asking questions. By asking questions, we can create connections and break down the unconscious biases that exist. I accept that people are curious about me, and I do everything I can to encourage them to ask me questions. Humor helps break the ice, and so does asking my own uncomfortable questions.
As a business leader, I believe that creating a work environment where people feel empowered and safe to ask difficult questions is critical. It helps to break down barriers and helps people connect and view the world from a different perspective. In a business that’s all about understanding what makes people tick and relating to them on an emotional level, it makes us more creative, innovative, and empathetic. It can be transformational.
We all have unconscious bias. Understanding what your own biases may be and how they may surface is the first step to raising awareness. We’re all human. Our experiences, education, beliefs, values, family, friends, and the environment surrounding us impacts how we connect and relate to others. Asking questions challenges you to recognize what it is about others that raise your biases and is the first step to breaking it down.
Go ahead and ask someone an uncomfortable question. The answer you get might surprise you—and you might learn something about yourself in the process.
Torsten Gross is a managing director at Deloitte Consulting LLP.