Disability Awareness: a Process, Not an Event

businessman in wheelchairWhen my editor pointed out to me that July 16th was the official Disability Awareness Day and suggested that this fact might be a good jumping off point for an article, I thought it quite apropos. Then I started thinking some more, and wondered: Is there, for each of us, an “aha!” moment when we attain true awareness of a concept as complex as disability? The answer is, most likely, no. Rather than an event, the development of true awareness tends to be a process.

We humans categorize, box, and label others according to stereotypes in order to make them more understandable. We recognize that others have differences from us, but this is not true awareness. I’ve been deliberately unaware myself at times, judging very harshly perfectly innocent people who didn’t understand me but were putting forth their best efforts to be kind, which is doubtless what they thought they were supposed to do. I’m sorry I did that.

Looking back, I think the stages in the process by which I have learned to accept and appreciate myself as a person with a disability have gone something like this:

  1. I am normal and that’s great.
  2. Uh oh! There are other people who aren’t like me. What’s wrong with me?
  3. If I’m so special, why are they treating me so mean? Why do they always try to help me, as though there IS something wrong with me?
  4. Well, forget them, anyway—I am just FINE. They need to get over themselves.
  5. Wow. If I am just fine, why am I so mean to everybody? Why do I hurt so much? Why do I feel so alone?
  6. Maybe I’d better work on accepting myself more, and judging them less.
  7. Oh, I get it now. We’re all in different stages of awareness. The fact that one of them may not understand me isn’t about me at all: it’s about them. I don’t need to let it upset me.
  8. I will make my best effort to not prejudge anyone. I will try to be more forgiving. And, I’ll actively work on helping others who are on separate and unique paths toward greater self-awareness. If I don’t do all of this perfectly, I’ll forgive myself, too, and try to do better.

An able-bodied person’s path to awareness of disability will likely have similar identifiable landmarks. No two roads will be the same. Too often, unfortunately, the process toward true awareness is shortchanged and we’re forced to “accommodate” historically disadvantaged minority groups without really learning anything about them or about ourselves. The Rehabilitation Act of 1974 and The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 are examples of necessary federal legislation that forced awareness and accommodation but were complied with somewhat grudgingly by some members of the nondisabled world who at times considered it a lot of bother and expense for “just a few people.” I know whereof I speak: I was engaged in full-time law practice at the time of the ADA’s passage and heard some of the complaints.

Sometimes laws are necessary to encourage needed and beneficial societal changes, but more often than not they do nothing to promote true awareness or understanding. At times the cure of the societal ill the law aims to rectify is as uncomfortable as the dis-ease that has preceded it. Fitting in with normal culture was often easier for me pre-ADA because I made up the rules as I went along, as my independent-thinking parents had taught me to do. Now, accommodation of people with disabilities and so-called “disability etiquette” often seem to follow the one-size-fits-all approach that says, “You people are all alike, and we know what’s best for you.” Such an approach smacks of paternalism but it seems an inevitable stage in the development of true awareness of difference on a cultural level. I call it the “confusion” stage: I once pointed out to someone that not all people who use wheelchairs for mobility are the same and received an incredulous “Really?”

On the positive side, the “coming out” of more people with physical disabilities into the educational, occupational, and social arenas seems to have eased some of the tensions that typically come along with encountering differences. Members of Generations X and Y, and now the Millenials, are exposed to greater cultural diversity than in my generation—the Boomers—or in any other. Increasing exposure to differences tends to facilitate the normalizing process. However, each of us will continue to struggle at times on an individual level. We still have a great deal of work left to do, especially toward eradication of the stigma surrounding mental and emotional illness. Individually and as a society, we need to eradicate the shame that says, “You should just suck it up and tough it out, whatever you’re going through. What’s wrong with you, anyway?” The Moral Model of mental illness is outmoded and serves no useful purpose that I can see.

All told, Awareness Days can help individuals, groups, and societies develop understanding, sometimes in unexpected ways. The minister of a church I belonged to about 15 years ago decided to hold a Disability Awareness Sunday service, four members with physical impairments having recently joined the church at around the same time. The minister said that the congregation wanted to know how to approach members with disabilities and we were to educate them. In response, a blind gentleman who’s since become an esteemed colleague offered this: “If you’re wondering what to say to a disabled person, ‘Hello’ is always a good start.” Long after, I wished that I had been so eloquent. I began to realize, too, that I often need to just get over myself and remember to say “Hello,” too. Awareness includes everyone.

Related articles:
Confined or Not? Reflections on Disability, Language, and Microaggression
The Inner Voices of Prejudice and Discrimination

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Suellen Fagin-Allen, JD, LMHC, PA, therapist in Orlando, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • lana

    lana

    July 18th, 2012 at 12:29 AM

    i don’t understand all the fuss people have about those with disabilities.just treat them the same. if your friend has a disability is he any different than your other friends?no!he may have a few special needs and nothing beyond that.if you can just be normal with them that is the only favor they require, no need of any mean behavior that I have seen some people indulge in.speaks volumes about their personality.

  • Jamaica

    Jamaica

    July 18th, 2012 at 4:08 AM

    What a wonderful point!
    Any kind of new awareness and understanding has to be treated more as a process of opening your eyes and not just something that can happen overnight. While I think that events such as disability awareness month or even black history month are great steps forward for our society, those things do not completely address the fact that there are still tons of misunderstandings about these issues that must be resolved before there will be true understanding and acceptance of others who are different.

  • Suellen Fagin-Allen

    Suellen Fagin-Allen

    July 18th, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    Thank you both for your comments! Iana, I think “all the fuss” comes from exposure without understanding. We see people who look different, don’t know what to do, and react with exaggeration. People with disabilities are the same as non-disabled people in many ways, but there are tremendous differences in abilities, needs and preferences within the so-called “disabled community”. If we can try to start seeing others as unique multicultural entities unto themselves – just as non-disabled individuals are each unique – we can make some real progress. Jamaica, I totally agree with you. Sometimes awareness days, weeks or months can expose us to topics and ideas we’d never thought of before. We can take brief notice and move on, or we can really start thinking about what we’ve learned. We can each make that choice. Thank you both for writing!

  • JosieW

    JosieW

    July 18th, 2012 at 3:18 PM

    Thanks for this piece Suellen. Sometimes it feels like we are not even making a dent in the ways that people feel about those who are different. For many, if you don’t fit into that mold of what they think someone should be then you are just different and don’t warrant a second thought. This opens our eyes to the fact that we should be able to say, so what if someone’s different? They are still a person, deserving of our respect just as much as the next person is.

  • Larkin

    Larkin

    July 19th, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    So if we want to move beyond this being more than event or special day or month of the year, then we have to do just that. We have to get in the faces of the people in our community and make them see that those of us have a disability have a voice, we have face, and that we demand to be seen and heard more than just at special times of the year. I don’t get mad at those who ignore, they really just don’t understand and feel uncomfortable and it is easier for them to ignore than to confront. But I am tired of being relegated to the back of the bus so to speak simply because there are others who don’t know how to deal with the issue. We really have come so far but have so much farther to go.

  • nala

    nala

    July 20th, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    for most of us this is not a matter of not accepting those who are disabled, but almost a feeling that we don’t know what to say. there is a discomfort (why?!?) when we are confronted with things that we don’t understand or have never had to confront before, so for a lot of us that may be where most of the trouble stems from. i in no way intend for my behavior to indicate that i am not accepting of those with disabilities.

  • Suellen Fagin-Allen

    Suellen Fagin-Allen

    July 27th, 2012 at 7:29 AM

    Thanks to all you for your thoughtful responses to this piece. JosieW, I think we often don’t give others who are different “a second thought” because we have only so much mental energy and have to allocate it according to how much it takes for us to fulfill our own basic needs first. If we give credence to Maslow’s hierarchy (and I do), making sure that we succeed in perpetuating our own existence trumps understanding others with whom we seldom are required to interact. Larkin, I agree that sometimes activism in required in order to see that even the most basic human needs of people with disabilities are met – needs like jobs, transportation, education and housing. Many of our homeless and lower-income citizens have disabilities and haven’t been privy to education, training and opportunities to succeed in the same ways that non-disabled folks take for granted. What I do try to point out in this piece, however, is that no amount of activism can achieve true understanding of disability by the non-disabled world. Developing understanding, acceptance and respect are “inside jobs” and we cannot simply demand acceptance from others and expect it to happen. Accommodation, yes – acceptance, not necessarily. Nala, I understand the discomfort that accompanies confronting difference and not knowing how to deal with it. That discomfort exists between genders, races, cultures, religions, ages and many other groups of people. I think it’s natural and stems from a basic instinctual reaction of fear about the unknown. Our attempts to overcome that fear and “do the right thing” toward those with difference often result in social blunders. I’ve had it happen to me over and over in my life. I think we all have to accept that life doesn’t come with a book in instructions and that we all have lessons to learn on our own. Sometimes the learning process involves discomfort. Sometimes we will misunderstand and sometimes we will be misunderstood. We need to feel the accompanying discomfort and keep moving through the process!

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