A Funny Thing Happened...

Talk about overcoming a disability: Michael Aronin turned his cerebral palsy into a career opportunity'

Growing up with cerebral palsy, Michael David Aronin learned the value of a well-timed joke to put everybody at ease. Aronin, 31, who used to work for the state of Maryland placing disabled workers, hit the comedy club circuit about six years ago. Now, from his home in Odenton, Md., he runs his own business called Rising Above, offering his services as an "inspirational" speaker to professional and business groups. Drawing on his gift of humor, he tries to sensitize and educate his audiences.

Aronin still does an occasional comedy gig, and is writing his autobiography. He spoke with frontier's Deputy Editor Robin D. Schatz about his own life, society's view of disabilities, and how employers can be more sensitive. Some excerpts:

Q: How do you describe your disability?

A: I was born not breathing. Some brain cells didn't receive enough oxygen, causing nerve damage. It affected my speech. I walk with some difficulty.

Q: When did you learn you were funny?

A: I've always been funny. Laughter has been my way of getting through difficult situations. I tell this story: When I was about 7, my mother and I were shopping in a department store. By accident, I tripped and fell down, and this stranger rushed over and helped me up, and then after she helped me up, I looked at my Mom and said, "I shouldn't have had that second drink this morning." And did that woman laugh.

Q: So why did you become an "inspirational" speaker?

A: Several times during my career on stage, people have come up after my shows and said: "Not only did you make us laugh, but you inspired me and I learned a lot tonight." From that, I knew I was on to something, and I started to research how to become a speaker and moved into addressing businesses at luncheons or conferences.

Q: What is your message?

A: Even though I've had challenges, here is how I got to where I am today--and hopefully people will think about their own lives and maybe rethink things that are stopping them from achieving what they would like.

Q: What advice do you have for small-business owners about hiring people with disabilities?

A: I think employers should not be scared to just ask applicants what kind of accommodations they might need. For example, someone in a wheelchair might just need their desk put on cinderblocks, so it's a little easier to maneuver in and out. I think employers are scared when they hear the word "accommodations." They think it may mean thousands of dollars in redesign when it may be something very easy, simple, and inexpensive.

Q: How can managers make the workplace more tolerant?

A: Management of the small business can set the tone. If they hire someone with a disability, they're sending a message that they think this person is the best candidate for the job.

Q: What's your biggest problem?

A: A big thing I talk about, and this still happens, is when someone meets a person like me with physical disabilities, they automatically assume you're mentally handicapped too, and may treat you like you're not intelligent.

Q: For example?

A: I go out to dinner with my wife at times and I'll order, and the waiter or waitress will look at my wife and say: "Is that what he wants?" One time, the waitress came over and asked her: "Do you guys need anything else?" And I said: "Would you please help me with my master's thesis?" I think she got the point.

Q: What surprises people about you most?

A: For some reason, they assume I don't drive. When I tell them I drive, it blows them away.

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