I was recently given an opportunity to speak at a conference attended by (among others) social workers, HR professionals, mediators and educators. To share a platform with so many innovative thinkers (some of them well-known) was an incredible honour for me.
After I spoke, regarding (primarily) disability and employment, I took questions from the audience. One of the questions has stuck with me in the weeks since that conference.
Is part of the problem the fact that people with visible disabilities embody a very real fear of one’s own potential of acquiring a disability? When facing the embodiment of that fear, do we project our fears onto that person because their reality scares us?
I had to pause and think.
The reality is, we all – as human beings – have things that scare us. Some of us are afraid of heights, while others can jump out of airplanes. Some of us love traveling, while the idea of leaving the comforts of home is terrifying to others. There are gourmet chefs out there who know people who are afraid of burning the house down if they turn on the stove. Whether fear is rational or not, it’s there, and fear is human.
How it relates to disability?
It seems that fear of one’s OWN disability – because it could happen to anyone – IS projected onto the person living that life. You are not likely – at age twenty or forty – to suddenly wake up in the morning and learn you’re Caucasian rather than the African-American you always believed yourself to be. Nor will you wake up tomorrow and suddenly find yourself – at thirty or fifty – attracted only to men when you’ve been attracted to women your whole life. But you could, conceivably, find yourself either physically or mentally impaired or disabled due to any number of variable causes from medical misdiagnosis to vehicular accidents, assaults, or any number of other biological or physiological factors. It’s true that disability shows no particular favoritism; it IS the only group that anyone can join at any time.
To avoid the disability label, sometimes people go to extreme lengths. Vision can be viewed as sacred, even at the potential of costing a child’s life. Disabled people frequently hear that a person they are talking to would rather kill themselves than be disabled.
Is disability so hard, really?
Or are attitudinal barriers – piled on to the challenges of disability itself – really what’s hard about living with a disability?
These thoughts all jumped around in my head as I stood in front of all of those people. I said some of the following in response, and wish I had said more.
Fear of sudden disability onset IS terrifying. If I woke up tomorrow and I couldn’t move my legs, or if I couldn’t hear my husband speaking to me, I would be devastated. I would try and find out anything I could to make things different. If they couldn’t change, if my condition became permanent, I would be sad and angry and terrified. Any major life change IS difficult, and people who recieve a disability diagnosis will go through stages of grief and recovery and acceptance.
That is human.
What ISN’t reasonable or fair is to project your human fear of going blind tomorrow onto the reality of my existance. The resume on the table in front of you is just as present as I am sitting across from you; the two are not mutually exclusive. I’ve had years to learn and to grow, just as you have in your own way. Disability does not automatically stunt one’s emotional growth, though the prejudices and fears of others can stunt professional or academic growth for us.
Your fear of imminent disability is not the reality I live with every day. If I scare you that much, is that really about me?
And yet I take the fall for it. My disabled friends take the fall for it. We get passed over for job after job, for opportunity after opportunity, not because we don’t have the skills, but because of someone else’s own personal fear.
It’s time to put fear where it belongs, into perspective. Just as I doubt I will ever know what it’s like to be a Sumo wrestler, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you may nevver know what it’s like to be blind. And that’s okay. You can wonder what YOUR life would be like if you went blind tomorrow, just as I can ponder what I would do if I lost my hearing. But what I cannot do – and what you must not do – is to take those fears and questions and uncertainties and place them on the shoulders of those who embody that reality. Our shoulders are not meant to bear your fear, but our hands are capable of providing help and guidance and productivity to your organization, your school or your company. Maybe in ways you never would expect.