A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a coworker about her husband's passion for the television show CSI. "Did you know," I asked, "that the actor who plays the medical examiner, has a disability? His legs were amputated due to an accident." "Really!" she exclaimed, "I wonder if my husband knows that! If not, I have to tell him!" She described an ongoing frustration with her husband's attitude toward disability. "He always tells me that if he ever had an injury like that, he'd kill himself." She hoped this information would change his attitude.
This type of attitude, I'm sorry to say, is not uncommon - and the effects are often underestimated. "What's the big deal," you may say, "He's just talking about his own personal preferences — not anyone else's. Why would his attitude matter?"
While on the surface, this attitude may seem to be limited in scope, it's based on one that's not — the belief that life as a person with a disability is less desirable than life as someone who does not. This mindset is one that leads to many things that are troublesome for those living with a disability — like pity, judgment, condescension, and devaluation.
In its worst incarnation - it can lead to conclusions and actions that are deeply troubling. Through this very blog, I've had comments from individuals who felt it was "cruel" to allow a child with a disability to be born, and those who defended the "kindness" of parents abandoning infants to death as their quality of life would be so undesirable it was kinder to kill them. It's something I find truly disturbing. And, these types of things are more common that many might think.
It's true, that the emotional and psychological issues around disability are complex and varied. There can be an element of mourning. But, there also may NOT. Either way, the reality is that human beings are peculiar creatures: We adapt. And, sometimes, disability drives us to grow in ways we might never have expected.
Robert David Hall, the actor I had spoken with my friend about that day, lived that reality. As an article in Success Magazine put it:
"... on July 10, 1978, when he was 30, Hall's life took a cataclysmic turn. Early that morning, an 18-wheel truck barreled into his car, igniting the gas tank. Hall sustained burns over 65 percent of his body and had to have both legs amputated. ‘I spent eight very gloomy months recovering in the burn unit,' he says.
After the accident, people told him he couldn't be an actor. ‘But I'm half Irish and stubborn, and I just didn't like being told I couldn't do things,' Hall says. Although he had thought about acting since his college class, he hadn't really made it a priority. Now, determination to disprove the naysayers fueled his fire.
‘After the accident, I realized I had more strength than I knew,' Hall says. ‘I was forced to face up to reality, but facing such a reality helped me face any fears I had of taking risks.'"
Every life involves some adversity — disability is only one of many ways that adversity can appear — and that adversity is not always in the form one might assume. As those living with disabilities can tell you, often the biggest barriers encountered are the attitudes and biases of others, rather than the actual physical or cognitive differences. Worse, it's been my experience that people do not even realize the biases they have, much less the impact of them.
When I was about 12, I had an experience that profoundly changed how I related to the world and made me realize how biases can creep into your thinking, without your even being aware of it. My father was dating my stepmother, and they'd begun the slow process of building a relationship between the two of us.
During her time as a single woman, my stepmother had developed a regular social routine. She had a network of friends she visited, and activities she went through each week. One day, she took me along on one of her visits.
When we pulled up to her friends' house, it was dark. I was concerned. "Are you sure they're home?" I asked. My stepmother's response was immediate and matter-of-fact, "Oh, yes. They're home. Since they're blind, they don't generally keep the lights on."
In that moment, I began to recognize the unconscious biases that were at work in my assumptions. When my stepmother had mentioned visiting her friends, it had never occurred to me that they might be blind. And when I saw the dark house, I didn't think twice about my assumption that they weren't home.
The reality, I was rapidly realizing, was that this assumption was only valid if one or more residents of the house are at least partially sighted. If you did not need to see in order to get around, why would you waste money on the electricity to light a house? I began to feel a little silly for not thinking of it before.
As we sat in the driveway, I felt my whole conception of the world began to shift. I gained a real appreciation for how powerfully unconscious assumptions could affect perception. And it was just beginning.
Continued in the next post...