When 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:
- I am normal and that’s great.
- Uh oh! There are other people who aren’t like me. What’s wrong with me?
- 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?
- Well, forget them, anyway—I am just FINE. They need to get over themselves.
- 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?
- Maybe I’d better work on accepting myself more, and judging them less.
- 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.
- 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.
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