Sunday, April 07, 2013

Seeing the Person before the Disability

In the disability world you may have noticed a big campaign going on for the past couple of years.  (At least that's how long I've been aware of it.)   The campaign is called "People First."  It's to remind you that people with disabilities are just people.

Do you wear contacts or glasses?  Did you know that you have a disability?  You do.  It's just that wearing glasses is so common it's become normal.  Nobody considers someone whose eyesight is failing to be disabled.  It's a disability that even has a cure, now - lasik.

The problem is that the general public is a lot less comfortable with the less common disabilities.  Wearing glasses makes you look smarter.  Glasses add to your attractiveness and desirability, at least that's what producers of eyewear would have you believe.  Sitting in a wheelchair doesn't work that way, does it?

If you have kids with disabilities, you have a front row seat to their lives.  You probably don't have any problem knowing the person before the disability.  If you don't have kids with any kind of disabilities, however, it's harder.  It takes an enormously open mind to see the person, rather than the person-in-a-wheelchair or the person-who-can't-talk-normally or the person-missing-a-limb.  Without experience with these people - without having opportunities to get to know the people who live with disabilities - it's next to impossible to have that enormously open mind.

It's easier if you knew the person before he or she had a disability.  If it's something they weren't born with.

Remember Jack Jablonski?  I wrote about him before, here.  He's the local teen who was paralyzed during a high school hockey game.  He has received so much love and support.  It's easy to see Jack, and not the disability because he was a nondisabled person, first.

I met a girl named Marrie last year.  Her name is pronounced Mary.  Here's a short video of Marrie testifying at the Minnesota State Capitol.

She has a twin sister named Carrie, and Marrie was born with cerebral palsy.  I got to know her last year at Partners in Policymaking, and I got to see the person behind the body that doesn't work quite right.  I've never experienced Marrie-without-the-disability, but I can see past it now, because I got to know her.

I know, I've harped on this subject before.  The recent death of Roger Ebert got me thinking about it again, though.  Roger Ebert was disabled.  Most of us don't think of him that way, because we knew him before he had a disability.  He was a person-without-a-disability first. 

Cancer took away a lot of his face and his ability to talk, but thanks to modern technology, he still had the ability to communicate.

In this video, Roger explains with heartbreaking personalization why society is so uncomfortable with living, working, and playing alongside people with disabilities:

"It is human nature to look at someone like me and assume I have lost some of my marbles.  People talk loudly and slowly to me.  Sometimes they assume I am deaf.  There are people who don't want to make eye contact.

It is human nature to look away from illness.  We don't enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality."

"We are all just one banana peel away from joining the disability movement."
(I heard this for the first time at Partners in Policymaking, but if you Google this phrase, you'll find it attributed to several different people.)
When you hear about battles for legislation to help people with disabilities, think about Roger Ebert. Think about Marrie and Jack.  And watch your step, literally and metaphorically.

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