Monday, November 06, 2006

Multiple sclerosis: Disproving the myths of disability

Thomas Holtackers, a retired physical therapist who has multiple sclerosis, talks about the challenges and myths surrounding those who live with a disability.

As a physical therapy student in the 1970s, Thomas Holtackers learned to help people overcome injuries that interfered with their daily activities. When Holtackers was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), he supplemented his physical therapy work with insight gained from personal experience. These days, a retired Holtackers actively encourages positive thinking to help people with disabilities meet the challenges of daily life.

The early years
Thomas Holtackers in 2000.

A native of New Jersey, Holtackers was active in high school and college sports. After college, Holtackers worked as a physical education teacher and coach. Later career goals led him to enroll in the physical therapy program at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Holtackers graduated from the program in 1972 and became a physical therapist in a hospital intensive care unit.

About this time, Holtackers developed the initial symptoms of multiple sclerosis — a disease of the central nervous system that can cause movement or coordination problems, pain or tingling in the limbs, vision problems and fatigue. After his diagnosis, Holtackers transferred to a unit where he could work with patients who also had MS.

Eventually Holtackers found his niche by balancing patient care in a hand therapy center and developing patient education materials. "Working with patients was the reason I became a physical therapist," Holtackers says. "But I also enjoyed developing education materials. Both were mentally challenging, yet physically accommodating."

Emotional toughness and a supportive environment: Tools for getting the job done
Working with a disability can be rewarding, but it's not without challenges — both physical and emotional.

"When you have a progressive condition, it's difficult to face a future of uncertainty," Holtackers says. "It's important to set your own doubts aside while you continually adapt to the changes the disease brings to your life."

Holtackers credits a supportive work environment for his successes on the job.

"Many people with disabilities want to work," Holtackers says. "The technology is out there to offer physical support in many work environments. But support from supervisors, co-workers and the administration is just as important."

For people who are worried about working with a disability, Holtackers says, "Maximize your ability and try to limit your disability. Accommodations are often more mental than physical."

Dispelling myths and changing perceptions
One misperception Holtackers tries to set straight is the belief that people with physical disabilities also have mental disabilities.

"Most people with disabilities can think on their own, make decisions on their own, and function independently mentally and physically — just in a different way," Holtackers says.

Holtackers acknowledges that his years as a physical therapist gave him the opportunity to change people's perceptions and attitudes toward disabilities. But first he had to change his own perception of what he believed others were thinking of him as a person with a disability.

"I ultimately determined that if a person has difficulty with my disability, then it's his or her problem," Holtackers explains. "I won't limit my life based on fear of how others may react to my disability."

The power of positive thinking
Holtackers actively encourages positive thinking.

"Your attitude toward yourself is reflected back to you from those around you," Holtackers says. "Every day, challenge yourself to deal positively with negative circumstances. When you project a positive attitude, those around you tend to become more positive, too."