In the Face of Adversity

The importance of resilience

Living With A Disability - Part 3

Understanding people with disabilities needs to start with the young.

I talked some in the last post about the unwanted gift that we receive when we have a disability. The gift is that we can see the world from a very different perspective. Having been born with what many might consider a minor disability, the absence of a left hand, I still am aware that I look at things around disability in a very different way than more “able-bodied” friends. First of all, I was aware growing up that adults may be more uncomfortable than children with a disability. Children just seem to be curious. The questions about how I was different and why I was different. But it was more difficult for me to deal with the same questions from older children or adults. Their questions bothered me. At times I felt ashamed. Obviously, I shouldn’t have, since I had nothing to do with having one hand.

As an adult and as a psychologist, I am aware that the way we deal with young children about difference has a lot to do with the attitudes and behaviors that they eventually develop around people who are different. It often starts with attempts by adults to hush young children and keep them from asking questions so that they will be polite and not rude. The message that we convey when we do this with our children is that there is something wrong about the difference that shouldn’t be talked about. There is something wrong with the person who has the difference, and if we talk about it, it will embarrass the person. Children are also often taught to feel sorry for the “disabled person” and to thank God that they are not like them. It doesn’t take long to understand why they develop the attitudes and behaviors that they eventually exhibit as older children and adults.

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This early training as a child contributes to many adults feeling uncomfortable around people with physical difference and encourages adults to avoid interactions or close relationships with persons with a disability. I've often felt over the years that many people did not really want to get to know me very well because of the physical difference and that many adults kept me in a category separate from the one they placed themselves in. Unfortunately, this behavior only increases their distance from people who are different and encourages segregation and discrimination. Lack of integration contributes to a lack of understanding and awareness which contributes to accessible bathrooms not really being accessible, to ramps being too steep and therefore dangerous and not accessible, etc.

On the other end of the continuum, this uneasiness can lead to systematic efforts to extinguish difference. As a disabled person, I am aware that the Nazis came for those with physical differences and disabilities before they came for the Jews or the Gypsies. I am still waiting for someone to erect a monument to the million-plus physically different folks who perished in the Holocaust. Dealing with other people’s attitudes and stuff about physical difference, my physical difference, always seemed to me to be the most unfair thing about being a person with a disability. Learning how to tie your shoes with one hand is hard enough. But I think I finally realized over the years that to deal very well with my own stuff, my anger, shame, etc., with my physical difference requires that I deal with other people’s curiosity and uneasiness about it. Obviously, much easier said than done.

Ron Breazeale, Ph.D., is the author of Duct Tape Isn’t Enough: Survival Skills for the 21st Century as well as the novel Reaching Home.

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