DLA associate views disability as new lease on life

By James Harless DLA Land and Maritime Public Affairs

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“Don’t let people define and pity you because of your deafness. Be who you are; show them who you are.” These words of wisdom have served as a moral compass for Teresa Brunotte, who has been legally deaf since she was a young child.

Despite being born and raised not far from the gates of the Defense Supply Center Columbus, home of Defense Logistics Agency Land and Maritime, Brunotte never envisioned herself becoming an associate with the agency. But today Brunotte is a material planner at the Central Ohio logistics center.

Brunotte began her federal career with DLA 11 years ago and recently volunteered to take part in Land and Maritime’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month Employee spotlight, as she felt it was an excellent opportunity to educate her co-workers while celebrating and honoring the contributions those with disabilities have made to the workforce.

“It’s a fitting time to educate and recognize people with disabilities who have had employment issues,” Brunotte said. “This is an excellent way to showcase their trailblazing successes into an employment setting where perhaps no one thought they could succeed.”

At just 18 months old, Brunotte was placed in the intensive care unit at a local children’s hospital where she remained for a month after being diagnosed with pneumococcal meningitis, a life-threatening infectious disease that causes inflammation of the layers that surround the brain and spinal cord.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 2,000 cases of pneumococcal meningitis occur each year. Symptoms such as cerebrospinal and neurologic complications are similar to other forms of bacterial meningitis. The case-fatality rate of pneumococcal meningitis is about 8% among children and 22% among adults. Before the routine use of a pneumococcal vaccine, children younger than one had the highest rates of disease, approximately 10 cases per 100,000 population.

The pneumococcal meningitis led Brunotte to contract an osteomyelitis infection in two of her upper vertebrae. Osteomyelitis is an infection in the bone and is most often treated with antibiotics. Unfortunately, according to Brunotte, it was the treatment of the infection that contributed to her becoming not only deaf but also a diabetic. Yet, despite this she does not view this experience as a tragedy but as a gift.

“As a result of the thousands and thousands of Penicillin G treatments, my body’s autoimmune response was to stop producing insulin,” she said. “Being deaf and diabetic is a blessing to me, as I’m a survivor.”

Brunotte added, “I’ll never know what it’s like to be a normal person, to be able to hear and not have to take insulin, but I do know what it’s like to have been given a second chance on life. I know the value of taking advantage of each opportunity I’m given, the value of exploring life, and the value of discovering new gifts and strengths I never knew I had.”

As a child, a determined Brunotte first attended several mainstream elementary and junior high schools before ultimately transferring to the Ohio School for the Deaf in 2002. Upon graduation, she enrolled at Columbus State Community College and then decided in 2004 to transfer to Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., with her sights set on becoming a teacher for the deaf and one day becoming a role model for deaf children. Brunotte’s role model was Hellen Keller.

“Helen Keller has always been a role model of mine,” Brunotte said. “She was a blind, deaf American in an era without modern technology, yet she found many ways to communicate and see the world without her eyesight. She remained socially and politically active her entire life and because of this we have the accommodations we do today. Keller was also the first blind-deaf woman to earn a bachelor’s degree. I remind myself on a daily basis that if Helen could do these things without any resources, then I have no excuse to achieve them as well.”

While attending Gallaudet University, Brunotte’s journey of self-discovery led her to become, Omicron Sigma Chapter President of Delta Zeta Sorority. She was also named Miss Deaf Ohio from 2005-2007, which led to her winning the Miss Congeniality award at the 2006 Miss Deaf America Pageant. She’s the recipient of two awards presented by the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Senate and impressively served as a guest speaker to the combined House and Senate.

After graduating from Gallaudet University in May 2008 Brunotte decided to apply for an internship through the Workforce Recruitment Program, a recruitment and referral program that connects federal and private-sector employers nationwide with highly motivated college students and recent graduates with disabilities who are eager to demonstrate their abilities in the workplace through summer or permanent jobs. After a series of interviews with University officials and workforce recruiters, Brunotte was offered a month-long internship by DLA Human Resources as an editor’s assistant with DLA training.

“During this time, the economy was going through the recession, so when I jumped into the WRP internship, I didn’t know what would happen at the end of the month,” Brunotte stated. “Fortunately, at the end of my internship, I was offered and accepted a full-time position as an editorial technician for DLA Training and remained for two years.”

After working as an editorial technician for two years, Brunotte decided to apply for the DLA Land and Maritime Corporate Internship Program, now known as Pathways to Career Excellence, which ultimately led to her selection and placement in Land and Maritime’s Land Supplier Operations directorate as a materiel planner on the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected light tactical vehicle team.

“I was shocked I got an offer to become a ‘Pacer’ with very little experience on supply chain and logistics,” Brunotte said. “Most people here have a strong background with military doing logistics or they went out of the country to serve. I didn’t have any military experience. With my major, early childhood education, this was a 180-degree career-changing point for me.”

In her spare time Brunotte found the time and energy to become the head coach for volleyball at OSD, an adjunct instructor for American Sign Language at Columbus State Community College and the Ohio State University, became a board member for Deaf Initiatives, a non-profit organization, been professionally recognized on numerous occasions with awards such as DLA’s J-1 Director’s Outstanding Award and the DLA Director’s Strategic Goals Awards, rescued three dogs, got married, and perhaps her greatest achievement of all, had a son.

Having been deaf nearly her entire life, Brunotte has had to circumnavigate numerous challenges and obstacles, most of which those without a disability often overlook. Perhaps the greatest of these challenges was overcoming many of the stigmas associated with disabilities and employment.

In the summer of 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was signed into law. The law was intended to prohibit discrimination based on disability and required covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. Yet more than 30 years later the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent report revealed people with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed, compared to those without a disability.

“In my opinion the biggest obstacle people with disabilities face in the workplace is the overall lack of employment opportunities,” Brunotte said. “It’s rare to see people with disabilities get hired. But when we are given an employment opportunity, it feels like most people only see the disability, not the person and their achievements, skills, and knowledge.  In my experience, the only way to overcome this is by working twice as hard to prove our worth as an employee. Fortunately for us, working hard is our strength.”

Brunotte suggested that it doesn’t have to be this way, something as simple as taking a few minutes of your day to stop and talk to a person with a disability is a great place to start. She strongly believes that by simply getting to know a co-worker with a disability, you would begin to tear down walls and build bridges that make the disabled employee feel they’re not different.

“Please keep this in your mind when you see someone with a disability; all we want is equal treatment and opportunities as those without disabilities,” Brunotte said. “We may not always have access to accommodations we need to fully meet our needs, so, please be compassionate with us.”