When you think of disability, what do you think of? Do you think of struggle, tragedy, inspiration? Do you think of incompetence or hope? Do you feel the overwhelming need to protect people with disabilities from all harm?
None of these – tragedy, protection, inspiration, incompetence – are what disability is about. It’s the only condition that transcends ethnicity, nationality, race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation or economic status.
Disability IS humanity.
So why do we in the disability community – whether we’re disabled ourselves or are a loved one, teacher, spouse, or caregiver of someone who is – swing to the extremes of over-achievement and low expectations?
Those who know me well (OK, and if I’m honest, even those who don’t) learn pretty quickly that I’m a perfectionist. I like to do things well because I hate backtracking and doing my work over again. I’d like to think I’m more tolerant of the true limitations, weaknesses and eccentricities of those around me than I am of my own, but the jury’s still out on that. This isn’t to say I agree with lazy or apathetic attitudes (I don’t), but I realize we’re not all blessed with the same personality traits, gifts, skills and talents.
But why do we raise or lower the bar only because of disability? How can parents sometimes deliberately make their blind child stand out by not teaching them how to perform basic living tasks? And what makes us, as disabled people, feel the need to do absolutely everything perfectly by ourselves just because it can be done? Why do we believe the lie that we cannot fail at anything? Ever?
I’m currently working in a field that does not come naturally for me. It’s uncomfortable. It’s discouraging sometimes (okay, a lot of times). But in an odd, uncomfortable way, it’s also been the most empowering experience of my life. If one day it reaches the point where it’s not working out, I can honestly say that I threw my whole weight behind it… and I didn’t give up. I’ve been publicly compared to Rocky Balboa, and I wear that badge proudly, with the metaphorical black eye, split lip, and everything.
Why do I do this?
Because far too frequently, I’m not given the chance to succeed or fail on my own merits. I’m either not given an opportunity at all because of the preconceptions of my blindness, or I’m told that any effort I give is good enough. Both are wrong. Often times, people with disabilities are robbed of a crucial part of a growing process because these opportunities are denied us by those who “mean well.” We’re not wrapped in cotton, we’re not precious little beings who need to be patted on the head for every little thing we do that our non-disabled classmates, coworkers, or friends do just because its expected. We’re not achieving something simply because we do it “in spite of” or “because of” our disabilities. We are people, period, and we should be able to embrace our talents, be encouraged to make an effort to expand our horizons, and be met with the inevitable challenge of falling flat on our face sometimes.
So throw away the bubble wrap. We’re going to get hurt sometimes. But look back on your life. Tell me, what are the times you grew the most? Was it the time when things came easy to you? Or the times you looked yourself in the face (metaphorical black eye and split lip and all), squared your shoulders, and told yourself that you’d give it one more try?
Disabled people may need help with some things, with some tasks, with some alternatives. Or we may not. But what we need, more than anything, is the opportunity, on an equal and level playing field, to succeed or fail on our own merits, based on our own personalities, skills, talents and effort. No one should deny anyone else those growing pains and glimmers of hope, and disability doesn’t change that.