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Photos of the Gaston Family.

When a Door Closes: Working From Home With Disabilities

To say everything changed in the workplace in 2020 is an understatement. Years later, we’re still living through the “new normal,” and it’s hard to imagine a time before. Some of us made sourdough breads or practiced dances on social media. For Cathy Gaston, a Complaint Tracking Advocate at GM Financial, working from home meant the disability she ignored for decades took hold and demanded her attention.

Effects of Fragile X

Cathy and her five sons live with various degrees of Fragile X syndrome (FXS). When asked what that means, she laughs contagiously and pulls out her phone to search for it. She answers “See? This is how it affects me and my memory sometimes. I know what it is, but still have to look it up!”

She explains that FXS is a genetic disorder caused by changes in a gene called Fragile X Messenger Ribonucleoprotein 1 (FMR1). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “FMR1 usually makes a protein called FMRP that is needed for brain development. People who have FXS do not make this protein.”

Those with FXS typically face developmental delays, learning disabilities, and social and behavioral challenges. When Cathy's sons were diagnosed, she was relieved to have answers and started to put it together with her own challenges.

She and her husband, James, fought for their children, helping them become more self-sufficient and the men they are today. Cathy says three of her five sons will always live at home: Courtny, 33, James III and Jahziel, 22, who were born 11 months apart. Cortez, 32, lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with family, and Rashun, 30, wants to join the U.S. Navy as a chef.

While the work and dedication to her family continues, Cathy finally has time to advocate for herself as well, thanks to her hybrid work environment. She’s able to address her own relationship with Fragile X.

Working from home

Cathy has been with GM Financial for more than six years, mostly in customer advocate positions.

“I love being a Complaint Tracking Advocate. I’m like a detective for our customers. I review complaints and try to read between the lines to figure out what went wrong,” she explains. It’s nearly impossible not to get caught up in her enthusiasm. “I see what actions were taken and advocate for the customer, trying to find a resolution.” This directly ties into GM Financial’s strategic priority: Think Customer. She supports customer loyalty by always empathizing with customers and considering their needs in everything she does.

Before March 2020, Cathy was caught up in the “hustle and bustle of going into the office.” She describes frantic days getting everyone ready in the morning, being available throughout the day and ending with a rush to get home to be there for her family.

Looking back, she can see how much she needed time to breathe and be present.

“Working from home allowed me to admit to myself that I have a learning disability, and I finally had time to focus on myself,” explains Cathy. “A part of me knew I struggled, all the way back to childhood, but I pushed it aside. Coming home forced the disability to center stage, and I knew I had to deal with it.”

How does one even begin to “deal” with that?

Leadership support

Along with her faith, Cathy leaned on the support offered by supervisors at work. She says her supervisor, Jessica Merryfield, created a safe and comfortable environment where she felt encouraged to talk with her.

“When we all went home, it was a whole new ballgame on how we communicated and worked with our teams,” says Jessica. “It was important to me to still have that ‘open door’ outlook where a team member could talk to me and tell me what’s going on with their lives just like we did in person. It was important to understand that not everyone’s experience was the same as mine. Many became teachers and caretakers, and they still had to do their jobs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

According to Cathy, this personal and empathetic leadership style gave her the freedom to speak up. Growing up, she often sat at the back of the classroom, afraid to speak up and be judged. Working from home, her self-confidence grew through introspection.

Rebecca Ronci, another former supervisor, says, “What I really loved is that she felt comfortable enough to share with me her disabilities and what challenges it can provide. I was then able to help her be successful in her role by helping her work through those challenges and changing my leadership style to best fit her needs.”

Being home most of the week (she still comes into the office on Thursdays), Cathy can be more hands-on in her sons’ developments and lives. Three of them go to a nearby Day Treatment for Adults (DTA) facility, where their days are filled with activities to increase their quality of life and develop independent living skills.

“While they’re at DTA, I still need to be available for them if they need me,” she says. Working from home gives her that necessary flexibility, and it’s hard to imagine a time before it. “If one of them forgets something or starts to feel sick, I can be there for them.”

Advocacy for equity

Cathy works through her own struggles with FXS through advocacy. Sharing her story helps her focus on her own needs, in a way. At GM Financial, she participates in the Women’s Inspiration Network, is a vocal participant of the Working Parents Employee Resource Group and is a proud member of the DE&I Council.

To Cathy, bringing her whole self to work is vital, which includes bringing up equity every chance she gets.

“When you apply to join the DE&I Council, you don’t know where they’ll put you,” Cathy explains. “I’ve pushed for equity my whole life, and when I was placed in the Equity group, I knew it was meant to be!”

It’s easy to see the connection: Equity is all about ​ensuring fair treatment, access and opportunity for all team members.

“Don’t be afraid to discuss your situations with your supervisor,” Cathy advises. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and think we must do everything ourselves. But seeking help could be where your help lies.”

Josh Foster
By Josh Foster, GM Financial

Josh Foster takes pride in his three orange cats and the ability to connect people with meaningful experiences. He’s a U.S. Army veteran and volunteers at the Detroit Zoo, where he’s able to educate guests with bad jokes about good animals.

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