By: Mary Ellen Gambon
As Epilepsy Awareness Month comes to a close, I wanted to take an opportunity to introduce myself to the Defeating Epilepsy community. My name is Mary Ellen Gambon. I have been a newspaper journalist during the past two decades, and I have had epilepsy for 30 years.
I realize that there may seem like two diametrically opposed concepts, particularly when my disability has prevented me from driving a car. Yet my point in writing this is to make our community, and more importantly, those who do not understand epilepsy, aware that challenges can be overcome with perseverance and the ability to think out of the box.
When I applied for my journalism degree at Boston University, I didn’t have epilepsy; it developed a month before I matriculated there. I never dreamed that my seizures would prevent me from driving, so I decided not to change my major. Instead, I pursued a second bachelor’s degree in political science because of my passion for public service. I interned in Washington, DC twice at a wire service, knowing that there was a great public transit system and ample cabs.
This was one of the most significant experiences in my life. The first story I covered was at the White House during the first Bush administration. Covering Congress for 38 states not only gave me a significant portfolio but also the confidence I needed to assure myself that I could succeed in the profession I had dreamed of since age 14.
Upon graduation, I won a national fellowship that only 10 journalism graduates nationwide received. I was honored by the achievement and excited to travel to Phoenix, which was a different world from Boston, where I have lived all my life. It never occurred to me that I would have been expected to have a car. My bosses were very understanding, and I explained to them that I would pay for my own cabs so that I could participate. Sometimes, they accommodate me by having me travel with a photographer.
My biggest challenge has been on the home front. For 25 years, every job has been skeptical about hiring me. I had to explain my willingness to pay for travel expenses to be given the opportunity to work. In some cases, I have to remind people about the Americans with Disabilities Act, now in effect for 30 years, which requires a “reasonable accommodation.”
I have faced job discrimination because one employer thought I was “an embarrassment to the office” for having a seizure in public. Twenty years later, I realize that this was a teachable moment. She was a legislator who was supposed to advocate for the needs of all her constituents – not persecute those she believed were inferior.
I am grateful for my three current bosses. They have understood that I have the talent and capability to work in a demanding field while not always being able to travel. And when I do travel, I take public transportation, Ubers or walk with a cane. Many of my articles have won accolades over the past three years.
I am not writing this to brag, nor as a pity piece over my inability to drive. Rather, I want to encourage others with epilepsy not to give up on their dreams. If people tell you that you can’t do something, push the envelope. Ask questions. Advocate for yourself and others who will follow you.
Awareness of epilepsy has made my bosses, and even those I interview, more aware of how to treat people with disabilities. They don’t speak slower to me anymore or expect that I will fall on the floor at the slightest stressor. While all conditions are different, now they are more aware and sensitive. It’s about equity.
Find out more about Epilepsy Awareness Month here.