For Brett Palser – Adversity is the Currency of Possibility
Brett Palser’s resolve and consistent test of self, puts a face to why San Diego Gas & Electric honors all those connected to National Disability Independence Day.
Palser, a world ranked adaptive CrossFit athlete is among a handful of SDG&E’s strategic vendor management advisors. The mid-career administrator is part of a performance management team that works closely with natural gas contractors to ensure they adhere to terms and conditions within binding agreements. He performs check and balance, continuously perusing those contracts to ensure both parties meet their contractual obligations.
Over the past decade, he has forged a new career and a thriving life as an athlete, husband and father, following an ATV accident that paralyzed him from the waist down. Through his adversity, he has gained an unmistakable broad bench of life experience to navigate life’s uncertainty.
A native of San Diego’s East County, Palser began his career with the utility in April 2006, as an entry-level gas operations laborer. Fresh out of Valhalla High School, he was a brawny find, shift-working to excavate, clean, and maintain gas infrastructure throughout SDG&E’s service territory.
At six-foot, with a chest and back the size of a professional rugby player on New Zealand’s national team, he is an imposing figure. Palser is the anchor you would want for the company picnic’s tug-of-war championship team. A gifted power athlete in his own rite, it is not a stretch to see him marked in the annals of his true love, adaptive CrossFit.
Youthful Exuberance Collides with a New Reality
In late 2007, just 20 years old, Palser was making it happen.
His career path was stable, which afforded him the ability to start making adult-level decisions. With a year at SDG&E under his belt, he was financially better off than most his age. He had already found Kimberly, who would eventually become his wife. They were in a committed relationship and making plans.
As a laborer, he had just completed a frenetic marathon of work due to several wildfires. The fires had subsided. There was time for respite with a carve out for adventure. Palser had a penchant for desert sand and fast, four-wheeled ATVs.
The morning of November 10, 2007 was brisk and invigorating. Gordon’s Well, an active recreation area for off-road vehicles in Imperial Valley’s sand dunes, was bustling with activity. He and three of his friends were mixing it up on an array of lightweight high-performance sand vehicles.
From the seat of his open cockpit four-wheeler, Palser watched a friend, riding in a larger dune buggy, crest a sand dune and disappear over the horizon. Palser hit the gas and gave chase – a scenario executed over and over by the litany of other riders who dotted the landscape.
As the top of the dune flattened, within the blink of an eye, Palser watched head-on traffic closing in faster than his ability to maneuver. Turns out, the metal break lever on his four-wheeler was no match to his grip strength, which at that moment, permanently bent to his pressure. Over the handlebars he went – his own vehicle careening onto his back.
Palser distinctly remembers the accident and the expedited trip back to San Diego in a Life Flight helicopter.
Over 40 family, friends and SDG&E co-workers amassed at UCSD Hospital’s emergency room, waiting for word from surgeons. Doctors said the injury was limited to an incomplete L2. That is a spinal cord injury that only partially severs the spinal cord, therefore allowing some signals to pass through the level of injury.
His immediate prognosis stripped him of the ability to walk. The next several months were an arduous rollercoaster of recovery and rehabilitation with stays at UCSD, Sharp, and Kaiser hospitals.
The Reinvention of Self – Adaptation Meets Possibility
There were many moments of anger and anguish, but according to Brett Palser, after being tested physically and emotionally – just like in the movie Shawshank Redemption – “You either get busy living or get busy dying.”
Throughout Palser’s ordeal, his peers and managers at SDG&E were his advocates. There were those who helped him navigate the mountain of healthcare paperwork and others who guided his work path. SDG&E’s doors were always open. He traded a shovel for a job in the mail room. From there he was promoted to a program assistant, then again to project specialist, and finally, project manager.
His newfound insight taught him to be creative. Inventing ways to overcome physical or mental obstacles gave him an edge over others. His secret – do not assume limitation – with a little creativity, there is always an adaptation if there is a will. Palser thrives outside his comfort zone.
In 2013, he and Kimberly married, and in 2015, the couple welcomed the birth of their daughter Emma. With a new baby in tow and an ambitious trajectory in mind, in 2016 he enrolled at Southern New Hampshire University to study business administration, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 2020.
His education, grit, and fortitude opened him to an alternative workplace possibility.
With a knack for adaptability and a body built for high intensity interval training, Palser has become a formidable adaptive CrossFit competitive athlete – world ranked. He placed second for his division in the WheelWOD Games in 2021 and placed third in the 2022 CrossFit adaptive semi-finals.
The Nuance Between Inspiration and Motivator
Every disability, hidden or in plain sight, is like a fingerprint – everyone is unique.
Palser encourages people to not be distracted by the attribute – focus on the person – their ability and their contribution.
Palser feels purpose in shaping the dialogue and vernacular about how people talk about disability. Especially when the discussion turns to a person with a disability becoming someone’s inspiration.
He encourages people to avoid that inspiration mentality which places the disability first and the person a distant second – as if he is in his wheelchair, just along for the ride. It is a mindset in which people may be unconsciously biased by their perception of his limitation. They are “inspired” when he is capable of anything different than that perception. A pat on the back. Think of it like this, Palser has yet to inspire his daughter to clean her room. He has motivated her.
Palser’s purpose is to motivate. Being a motivator, as opposed to an inspiration, places the person and their character – front and center. It also emphasizes his leadership value in the workplace to lead others through dynamic challenges, including fostering meaningful conversations about diversity, inclusion and access, and honoring what it means to celebrate National Disability Independence Day.
Palser, as a motivator, flips the script.
Never assume you or another has a limitation from the start. He is a healthy dose of motivation to live your true self.
National Disability Independence Day commemorates July 26, 1990, when former President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. The legislation ensures people with disabilities have new-found equitable opportunities, rights, and access.
San Diego Gas & Electric, which has an internal group dedicated to serving those with access and functional needs, is champion for disability awareness, which is the practice of knowing, acknowledging, accepting, and celebrating individuals’ experiences as they relate to disability and seamlessly integrate into our workforce capital. Moreover, SDG&E is committed to supporting our customers with various access and functional needs and making sure that everyone is offered equal access to information, resources, and services.