Celebrating Disability Employment Awareness Month With Ryan Talmage
The University of Denver is committed to living our values of diversity and inclusion. We recognize that our community and institutional success is dependent on how well we engage and embrace the rich diversity of our faculty, staff, administrators, students and alumni. With that shared value in mind, throughout this academic year, we plan to publish a series of articles to celebrate cultural and ethnic heritage months. In partnership with Human Resources & Inclusive Community and the Staff of Color Association (SOCA), we will feature a staff or faculty member and a student in recognition of each heritage month, along with an event to honor one another and learn about our unique differences.
“Disabled” isn’t Ryan Talmage’s favorite descriptor.
“It’s hard for me to apply it to myself,” he says, before cracking a joke, “except when it comes to the handicapped parking.”
Still, Talmage (MA ’14, MLS ’16), who works as a risk and insurance analyst in the University of Denver’s Department of Enterprise Risk Management, has to concede he has always been different.
He didn’t play sports with the other kids. Until last year, he didn’t wear shorts, choosing instead to hide the prosthesis he’s worn since his early childhood, when a birth defect forced the amputation of his right leg just below the knee.
“There were always some things that I was never going to be good at, running being No. 1,” Talmage says. “I won’t be running — with the chancellor, across the street or for my life — any time soon.”
Instead, Talmage is passionate about his work and his education. He’s earned two master’s degrees from DU already and expects to finish his JD in the next year or two.
In recognition of Disability Employment Awareness Month, Talmage told the DU Newsroom about his experience as an amputee, an employee and a student on campus. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You initially came to DU for a degree in international studies. What’s the connection between that and risk management?
Nothing! Risk management is something that I’ve done throughout my career, long before coming back to school, never as my only position, but it was part of everything I did up to that point. When you work in small companies, there’s always someone who takes care of the insurance. And I was usually that guy.
[At DU,] I manage the University’s liability and property insurance programs, including worker’s compensation, but not benefits such as health insurance. I coordinate the claims process, working with insurers and counsel. I am the go-to for most risk management questions, except for international travel and compliance, which are handled by my team members.
What do you like about the work?
Oh, it’s forever changing. You never know what’s going to come at you at any point during the day. It’s always different, and it’s always exciting.
Why aren’t you a fan of the term “disability?”
It’s tough. Disability is a word that has a lot of negative connotations. But when it comes down to it, I actually am [disabled]. There are things I just can’t do like everyone else. [But,] it doesn’t bother me when people ask me about it at all.
It’s when people don’t ask about it?
Whether it’s here on campus or at Red Rocks or at Walmart, you get out of your vehicle [in a handicapped space] and you walk and you don’t have a visible disability (when I’m not wearing shorts). People make nasty comments, talk about how they wish they could get those parking spots and just generally are very rude. And if it’s not comments, it’s the dirty looks.
Just because a disability is not obvious, that does not mean one does not exist. People should think about that before commenting. If it’s just killing you, ask. I have no problems telling people why. It’s really easy, lose a leg. You can also have handicapped parking.
We featured one of our alumni, Lacey Henderson, in the Newsroom earlier this month. She’s a Paralympian, an amputee as well, and mentioned in our interview that people with disabilities are often forced into advocacy, in a way, simply because of the way they look.
Oh yes, absolutely. Especially since we’ve been embroiled in the last two wars and amputations are much more commonly seen. The pylon leg really has become visible since then. When you’re wearing them, there are assumptions that you’ve served. Basically because it is visible, you’re approachable.
Generally, I don’t mind that at all. Kids pointing at me and saying, ‘hey look,’ is much more acceptable than their parents or grandparents doing everything they can not to make eye contact. It’s goofy. I don’t like the dirty looks or the condescending side comments, but at the same time, ask me about it and I’m pretty darn open.
In an effort to make the University an inclusive and welcoming place, what suggestions, if any, would you have for improvement?
I have found the University to be very good about addressing issues. One example was Parking Services rationalizing a situation with handicapped parking passes [which were previously tied to a specific lot]. Now, if a person qualifies for a pass, it is one price and usable across campus — not limited to a specific lot. That’s a big deal when your office is in AOB but most meetings are in Mary Reed and Facilities. LEED certified building design remains a challenge. Now all facilities are constructed with limited mobility, but not in a wheelchair, in mind.
The longer you spend here, the more paper — I’m talking degrees — you seem to accumulate. What’s it like to be an employee and student here at the same time?
It is incredibly rewarding and incredibly tough. … I like learning. It’s burdensome, but I wouldn’t know what to do without it. Since I’ve come back to school, it’s been as important to me as the job. Since I made the commitment to come back to school, I would feel lost until I achieve certain levels.