In the summer of 1986, Won Shin, an upcoming sophomore at Texas Christian University (TCU), dove into an ocean wave off the Jersey Shore and slammed headfirst into a sandbar. Won, an all-around athlete and member of TCU’s lacrosse club, was paralyzed from the chest down, with limited movement in his arms, hands, and fingers. Months of grueling rehabilitation awaited him.
While Won was in intensive care, the neurosurgeon asked Won’s mother whether her son was average, above average, or below average. “Average,” she answered. It was the right answer — and the wrong one. Her response helped motivate him to prove that he was above average.
Back to School
Fourteen months after his injury, Won returned to TCU as a full-time student to continue his education. He learned how to drive, found an accessible apartment near TCU, hired part-time home health aides, and met with the Dean of Students to discuss his accessibility needs. “I reconnected with friends, learned to navigate the campus from my wheelchair, helped coach the lacrosse team and was initiated into my fraternity. I tried to live life as best I could and continue my college experience.”
Building a Career Path
In 1988, taking advantage of essentially free tuition, Won transferred to the University of Texas at Arlington, where he competed nationally in a variety of wheelchair sports. Next was law school at Southern Methodist University. Upon graduation in 1994, Won returned to Philadelphia, where he took a job as an assistant deputy mayor, serving as Mayor Ed Rendell’s liaison to the community on disability-related matters.
Won left the deputy mayor job to work as a trial attorney for three years. After earning a Master of Laws in Taxation at Georgetown University Law Center, he joined Grant Thornton in 1998. He later took a job with Ernst & Young, LLP (EY), returned to Grant Thornton, and then went back to EY in 2006 and has been there ever since, serving as a senior manager.
“If you tell me something I can’t do, you can bank on I’m going to figure out how to get it done,” Won says. His drive was evident during his first months of rehabilitation. On his first day in a wheelchair, he decided to push himself from rehab to his room. It was a painfully long and slow trip, but he made it. With each passing day, the trip got a little bit easier.
“Yeah, I’ve overcome challenges. But just because I have a disability, it doesn’t make me better or worse than anyone else. This is my life, and it’s what I have to do. Everyone has their own challenges.” Won approaches his technically complex, demanding work at EY with the same attitude. When unexpected issues crop up, he’s ready. “Having gone through what I went through, I’ve learned that I am capable of handling any obstacle thrown in my path.”
EY has worked closely with Won to make sure he has the tools he needs to be a successful employee. Recently, the firm moved to a new office in Philadelphia, and the facility managers teamed with Won to design an office that maximized workspace and maneuverability. “What I think is most important is that the people that you’re working for care about you — they appreciate what you’re doing, they care about the fact you’re working long hours, and they care enough to think, ‘What can I do to get this person to the next level?’”
Outside of EY and spending time with his wife and two children, Won is deeply involved with the Inglis Foundation, for which he currently serves as the Vice Chair. The foundation strives to allow people with severe physical disabilities to live their lives to the fullest extent possible. It provides support programs from housing to employment services to adaptive technology, as well as a 24-hour skilled nursing facility called the Inglis House. “I realize how fortunate I am to have a career and to be able to live the life I’ve lived for the past 28 years since my injury. I have a duty to give back.”
Won first came into contact with the foundation in high school as part of a community service program. He met young people with spinal cord injuries who were living in a nursing home because they had nowhere else to go. “When I was 18 years old, I didn’t appreciate what that really meant.” His parents had the resources to make their house accessible and for Won to continue his education.
Won emphasizes that poverty is a major issue for people with disabilities. The literal costs of a disability are enormous — whether it’s making a home accessible or buying a wheelchair or visiting expensive medical specialists. Often, people with disabilities are stuck in a financial bind. To qualify for the state and federal financial and medical assistance they need to live, they cannot earn income over a certain amount. When weighing a job offer, they have to figure out whether the potential income would cover the assistance they would lose.
Won is often asked what advice he would give to a young person with a disability. His answer is simple and applies to everyone, not just those with disabilities: “Get your education. Education is your key to empowering yourself. It’s more than a piece of paper. It shows how well you can set and accomplish your goals.”