The Huffington Post, for whom I blog weekly, asked me to write a post for the TEDWeekends edition of its website focusing on the TED talk by the wheelchair -bound performance artist, Sue Austin, titled, Deep Sea Diving…In a Wheelchair. The only instructions I was give was to consider the following themes: “How society views people with disabilities and ways we can foster a greater understanding of their lives and perspectives, and the problematic tendency to construct our personal identity based on how others view us.”
So, here’s my take.
I don’t know why people make such a big deal out of so-called disabled people (physically challenged is the accepted phrase these days). The problem lies in how people think about disability. First, most of us think of disability rather narrowly, for instance, when someone is missing a limb, paralyzed and in a wheelchair, or blind. Basically, any condition that is obvious and limits people from doing things that so-called normal people can do.
Second, people tend to think of disability as dichotomous; meaning you have it or you don’t. But I see disability as lying along a continuum; it’s a matter of degree, not kind. Though we don’t think of it this way very often, it’s possible to be a little disabled, somewhat disabled, or severely disabled, depending on how much the physical challenge prevents disabled people from engaging in the laundry list of what we consider to be so-called normal activities, from talking, hearing, and seeing to walking, eating, and having sex.
The fact is we’re all disabled in one way or another. Let’s break down the word disabled. It means ‘not able.’ Well, gosh, I’m not able to do a lot of things. I’m not able to dunk a basketball. I’m not able to do open-heart surgery. I have a truly terrible singing voice. Does that make me disabled? Of course not, because I’m able to function perfectly well in most aspects of life.
Many people who are labeled as disabled can also lead predominantly normal lives. They work, marry, have children, play sports, the list goes on. Admittedly, there are some who have suffered egregious physical insults that truly incapacitate them, but even many of them are able to lead productive and fulfilling lives (e.g., Stephen Hawking).
And think about it. There are far more things that most disabled people can do than not do, making them pretty darned ordinary, in other words, just like the rest of us.
Why should what they are not able to do define how others view them, namely, as disabled, when, based on my experience with physically challenged people, they don’t define themselves that way? What they are not able to do shouldn’t determine how others look at them any more than my not being able to sing well should influence how people see me.
Realistically, it’s not surprising for people to develop certain perceptions about disabled people. We naturally make judgments based on information that is most readily available. And their disabilities are most obvious, whereas it isn’t always clear all of the abilities they possess, such as incisive thinking, a sense of humor¸ compassion. I’ve found that, once I spent time with physically challenged people, their disabilities faded into the background as who they were and what they were capable of, unbound from their disabilities, became more evident. Disabled people went from being disabled to being just people.
We also have a tendency to idolize disabled people, to see them as courageous and as inspirations for all of us. We marvel at how they overcome their disabilities to compete in marathons, get college degrees, or establish successful careers. We think they are somehow special and we want to learn how they have coped with their difficult lives in the hope that we can use those lessons to overcome the comparatively minor challenges we face in our own lives.
But the disabled people I know don’t think of themselves as different or special. Remember that, at some point in their lives (unless they were born physically challenged), they weren’t different or special, they were just normal, just like the rest of us. They don’t possess special qualities, for example, resilience or a positive attitude, that we lack.
What changed were their circumstances, namely, the physical challenges that changed their life. The attributes that emerged that enabled them to overcome their disabilities weren’t unique to them. Instead, their reactions that we consider superhuman are, in fact, decidedly human and reside in all of us. Though we may think that we would crawl up into a ball and surrender when faced with similar challenges, most of us would probably react with the same courage and determination. That is the real lesson that so-called normal people can learn from those who are disabled.
So, next time you meet a so-called disabled person, try two things with them. First, rather than paying attention to their disabilities, find out what their abilities are and learn how they define themselves.
Second, don’t treat them as if they are disabled. Instead, treat them as if they are normal. You know why? Because they are far more normal than you think.
And, more importantly, they want to be viewed and treated based not on their disability, that is, one small aspect of who they are (however noticeable and intrusive the disability may be), but rather on all of their abilities and on the totality of who they are.