Boehringer Ingelheim
02 December 2016
Sarah Pfeffer

My experience as a disabled person at BI - Interview with trainer Bernhard Jegan

“Having been born without arms, I am a role model for business professionals when it comes to 100% commitment and perseverance.” This is how Bernhard Jegan welcomes visitors to his homepage. He has been a consultant, trainer and coach for Boehringer Ingelheim for 25 years. He works in the fields of conflict management and leadership coaching, as well as team development. In this interview with Sarah Pfeffer, he talks about how he has been treated – particularly at Boehringer Ingelheim – as a person with a disability; the importance of dealing boldly and frankly with the issue of disability; and what people without a disability can learn from the disabled.

Mr. Jegan, you were born without arms, but you are successfully working as a coach, also at Boehringer Ingelheim. What do you experience when the group first meets you during training?


My experience is that people are irritated at first, if they have not been told beforehand. Someone who doesn’t have arms is sitting or standing there. And then I experience a more restraint and polite, tactful behavior. Everyone notices it, but no one dares to mention it. It is not until I break the silence on the subject that they open up and can talk freely about disability. What that means is that if I don’t address it, and instead just say at the start of a seminar or coaching session something like, “So, do you have any questions?”, disability usually doesn’t come up. But, if I then say: “So, now let’s talk about disability; you can see that I don’t have arms, and if you are curious, you are very welcome to ask me questions about it,” usually the first polite, timid question comes: “Yes, I’d like to know whether you have been disabled from birth or if you had an accident.” I respond, “From birth”, and then someone else puts their hand up and asks if I am a Thalidomide baby. I tell them no, and then the discussion really gets going. But the start of the discussion is always characterized by tactful, polite reserve.


Would you like that to be different?


It would be helpful for all if people were a bit bolder and would just dare to approach us and ask us questions. I mean, obviously, people have loads of questions when they see someone who doesn’t have arms. And my plea and offer is: “Spill it out!” If we cannot or do not want to say something because it's too personal, we’ll say so. I do believe that it is the same for most disabled people, at least for those who were born with their disability. It may be different for someone who has become disabled recently or who is disabled due to an illness or accident, I can’t really say.

My plea is simple: “Disabled people are just like everyone else. We like people to show interest in us – when that interest is genuine.”


That would be my very urgent recommendation to the non-disabled. Simply showing interest and asking questions would make the initial encounter considerably easier.


Many people without disabilities are probably afraid to say something wrong ...


This leads me to my second concern: Me and other disabled people are often confronted with a wave of admiration. The German word for “admiration” (“Bewunderung”) certainly has a very positive connotation, but we, as disabled people, often have a very ambivalent relationship to it because it is derived from the word for “miracle” (“Wunder”). And none of us see ourselves or anything we can do as a miracle. Instead, our abilities are the result of hard work, great self-discipline, zest for life, energy, power, call it whatever you want. I know people mean well when they say that, but there is nothing miraculous about it at all. Once a disabled person said to me that he would actually rather be fully accepted as a normal person – as a fellow human being – than to be admired. Because admiration really means that you are a miracle, that you are something special, but we don’t want that at all - we want to belong.


Is there any specific advice on how to deal with disabled colleagues at the workplace?


Yes: disabled people usually don’t want to be pampered. We draw our self-worth from exactly the same sources as the non-disabled. Disabled people in the workplace also have an employment contract laying out our rights and duties, and we want to perform as well. We also want to contribute to the success of Boehringer Ingelheim to the best of our ability. Our goal is to contribute as much as possible and to be appreciated for it. And if I mess up I want to be told just as any other colleague.  


Is there something that you particularly appreciate about the way that Boehringer Ingelheim as an employer treats disabled employees?


At Boehringer Ingelheim, handicapped people are integrated as normal and unaffected as possible. In my opinion, this is exactly the right thing! Disabled people are neither placed on a throne nor left alone. They are simply employees like the people without disability as well.


In 2012, Boehringer Ingelheim was one of the first companies to create an action plan for the interests of disabled employees. This action plan puts the aims and requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into practice in areas of the business environment which they can influence, such as workplace design, accessibility and social activities. Are you familiar with the action plan and, if so, what is your assessment of it?


Of course, I am familiar with the action plan and I think it’s very good, because it takes a very practical approach. And I was very positively surprised of how concrete it is and that it contains measures to be taken rather than just statements of intent. I really like that.


Do you feel that the action plan’s targets are reflected in the culture at Boehringer Ingelheim as well?


What I feel is that the company’s feedback culture has changed and is becoming considerably tougher, especially in the course of increasing globalization. Dealing with and learning from constructive criticism is actually intrinsic to personal development – for disabled people as well. However, the individual treatment of employees plays an important role in this, especially in the case of disabled people. I’m thinking now of disabled people whose disability is not visible from the outside. In that case, it is all the more necessary to find out through discussion what the employee is capable of, what the restrictions are, the extent to which demands of the employee can be made, and where allowances need to be made. Do not make allowances in advance without discussing them first. That would be a plea to managers with disabled employees in their team. Of course, a certain amount of guts and courage are needed but I believe Boehringer Ingelheim has a good culture for that.


Do you believe that the action plan is contributing to a perception that Boehringer Ingelheim is an attractive employer among people with disabilities too?


Definitely. Let alone the fact that Boehringer Ingelheim has professionals who are ensuring that there is an Inclusion-Team sends a very strong signal in itself. Through my consulting work I have already met many companies but I don’t know of any other company that’s as explicit about what it is doing as Boehringer Ingelheim, that really puts its money where its mouth is. For example, where there is an “Inclusion Week” or a “Diversity Day” where the diversity of the workforce is discussed and the differences are valued. Boehringer Ingelheim is really a lighthouse in that respect.


In your opinion, what can a person with a disability do better than a person without a disability?


That’s a challenging question. I think that a lot of disabled people are better at identifying their capabilities and limitations. That is already in the word “dis-abled” itself. You are restricted and dis-abled. A non-disabled person in their mid-twenties, on the other hand, may live according to the mantra “The sky’s the limit,” believing they can become anything they want. And people often come back down to earth with a bump when they realize that they have limitations and that no one can do everything. And I don’t think that disabled people have this disappointment, this frustration, this personal crisis to the same extent, because they already came across their limitations a long time ago and have been living much, much longer with limitations as well. And as a result, they are more stable emotionally. Therefore, they are less euphoric and, usually, less quickly frustrated than other people.


Do you believe, then, that non-disabled people can learn something from disabled people and from their dealings with them?


If they want to, yes. I would say so. In principle, the point is: to make the best of it. If you can accept that you have limitations, if within these limits, you achieve the most that you can, and are satisfied with life; also, if you realize that you can’t literally reach up and grab the stars out of the sky. That’s actually true for everyone else, too, but most people refuse to believe that. That’s the difference.

Let me maybe give you one last example. A few weeks ago, an employee said to me: “Picture this: my boss sprained his wrist four weeks ago, and since then he has been so bad-tempered and grumpy and so frustrated because his hand is in a bandage right now. He should just see you, how happy and satisfied you are with your life, and you don't even have wrists. Then he might just stop going around moaning about his stupid wrist, especially because it will be better again in four weeks anyway.” I thought that was really lovely. And non-disabled people could perhaps learn that from us: To take a more relaxed view of things.



"Please be sparing in your admiration and instead accept us as normal employees and colleagues, says Bernhard Jegan "
Sarah Pfeffer

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