It Starts with Education

I don’t lose my temper very often. If I am ever upset, I typically remove myself from the situation to deal with the resulting emotions on my own. Sometimes, my friends and family members might realize I am atypically quiet, and they might ask me if something is wrong. I have often joked with others that it’s when I’m really quiet or in tears that people need to get worried.
I was eating dinner with friends a few weeks ago when we began talking about our pet-peeves. I quickly spoke up. “There’s only one thing that really irritates me,” I said immediately.
“Oh, yeah?” one of my friends responded with a sarcastic smile. “Please tell me about what irritates you so I can be sure to do whatever it is.”
I groaned good-naturedly, but our conversation quickly got serious. I proceeded to share my heart on a topic that is very important to me: the way in which I perceive people with disabilities are treated by “normal” people.
Now, of course, there are no “normal” people in the world, but I think our culture has taught us that there is a separation. There are disabled people and able-bodied people. There are handicapped parking places for “them” and accessible bathrooms for their use as well. Everyone else is taught how to drive, gets married, goes off to work, and starts a family, but people with disabilities are often put in a box. They are taken at face-value and immediately identified as different. Even a recent catch phrase, which was probably created as a means to set the record straight, may have done just the opposite. This being “differently-abled” is a nice way to refer to someone with a disability without saying they are “disabled,” but in a sense it immediately labels someone as being different from the rest of the world.
It seems there is no avoiding it. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed over 25 years ago was a great start. We may have adapted our buildings and transportation to be relatively accessible, but what about developing a more accessible mindset in our culture? When will we be able to move beyond this “us” and “them” division?
A few years ago, I stormed out of a community coffee hour because— you guessed it— someone’s comments had pushed me past the breaking point. I couldn’t stand to hear a fellow person with a disability be demeaned and belittled. It started out with someone making a comment about this individual who has significant disabilities. The group of people gathered around the table couldn’t believe that he was going to college.
“What is he going to do with that degree?” someone asked. “He’s never going to get out of that wheelchair or live independently. It’s a waste of money if you ask me.”
I was immediately frustrated. I wanted to say back to them: “Who are you to judge what he is able or not able to do? Just because he is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean he can’t live independently. Have you ever talked to him? Do you know his goals and dreams for the future? Your comments seem a bit close-minded to me right now…”
But I chose not to say anything… only to reaffirm my commitment to education. No, I am not making the announcement that I am going to go back to school to become a teacher… not in the formal sense, at least. But since that day, particularly, I have felt it is my mission to educate the “normal” people about people with disabilities.
So as I sat with my friends around the dinner table— after my friend stopped teasing me and we got down to business— I found myself being asked to participate in something special. You see, my friend is a pastor, and his daughter, like me, has a disability. He had the awesome idea to incorporate me into the Sunday morning children’s sermon at his church.
So the next morning, I found myself at the front of the sanctuary with 300-some pairs of eyes on me. I prayed fervently for the words to speak as I answered each one of my friend’s questions. I have spoken to children at various schools over the years in addition to my teens at camp, but I had the strong sense that this would be very different. For practically for the first time ever, I was speaking to children and adults. It was an honor and privilege to take the first step toward effective education. No, I couldn’t convey everything that morning that I would want others to know about people with disabilities, but it was a positive progression forward.
I realized in that moment how passionate I am about disability education. I have come to notice that a great deal of misunderstanding and miscommunication happens between “us” and “them” because we don’t often take the time to learn from each other. It’s in sharing our stories and growing together that we can move beyond ignorance into community. It only takes one to take the first step, and although I know I’m not the only one educating others, I felt like a pioneer on the ever-evolving journey. There’s so much more to do, but we’re heading in the right direction.