“It was a complete shock. That’s the only way I can describe it,” says Heinrich. “In 2016, after a series of retina problems, I went to see the GEA company doctor and he told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to drive a forklift any more. My whole world collapsed. I was really scared that after nearly 30 years’ service, I would lose the job I loved so much because of my visual impairment. Did I still have any value? And what could I still do for my employer? But then I talked with Susanne Schmidt, who is the disabled employees’ elected representative at GEA Bönen and is hearing-impaired herself, and I began to feel a glimmer of hope again.
Out of 700 employees, 30 are disabled and the company has even hired three people with a physical impairment in the past couple of years. That’s way above average. As someone with personal experience of disability, Susanne fully appreciated my concerns and immediately saw the course we needed to take to find a solution.”
Under normal circumstances, if your disability gets worse, it has a knock-on effect in other areas.
“Under normal circumstances, if your disability gets worse, it has a knock-on effect in other areas. So I was fully expecting to be let go or, at best, to be offered a less interesting job, with lower pay. But in talking to Susanne, I realized it didn’t have to be that way. She was very combative (laughs) and told me there was absolutely no reason to give up. We discussed all sorts of things: not just my physical capabilities, but also what qualifications I had and what kind of job would best suit my experience. As it turned out, I was eligible for a position that required not fewer, but more qualifications than the job of forklift driver.”
“I’d been working there for almost 30 years by that point, so I knew the Bönen warehouse like the back of my hand (laughs) and had already learned a lot about logistics. I was also familiar with the products of GEA Farm Technologies in the warehouse. So since January 2017 I’ve been working as a production planner. I make sure that the Production department has everything it needs in good time, for example to make a GEA milking machine. And I have to admit it suits me just fine. It’s a challenging job, but I’m very motivated and get recognition for my efforts from my colleagues and managers. GEA has purchased special equipment to help me, such as an adaptable desk, a display of above-average size, a keyboard with very large letters, and custom lighting. My manager has explained to my colleagues that I need these things to be able to do my job and they all support me. Susanne told me that this is certainly not the case everywhere and that in some companies, coworkers feel that you’re getting privileges and preferential treatment because of your disability. It’s not at all like that here. People see me as I really am and understand that it’s out of necessity. To be honest, I think it’s great that I’m treated as just one of the team (laughs).”
In some companies, coworkers feel that you’re getting privileges and preferential treatment because of your disability. It’s not at all like that here.
“I can’t stress enough how fortunate I feel. My family were also very worried when my eyesight suddenly deteriorated and they’re happy that everything turned out so well. But what’s really reassuring is that if my sight were to get even worse and become even more of a disability, I know that I don’t have to be afraid, that I’m not alone and that we can sit down again and talk until we come up with the right solution. I’m extremely grateful and want everyone who’s helped me at GEA to know that. And because I’ve experienced at first hand how important it is to get the right kind of help, I’ve decided to help other people as well. That’s why I am also a member of the disabled employees’ elected representatives now, because everyone deserves to get help the same way I did.”
What’s really reassuring is that if my sight were to get even worse and become even more of a disability, I know that I’m not alone.