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The Assumptions That Make Me Feel 'Other' as a Person With a Disability

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I’m still shuddering from a conversation I had this week.

“When people see you, they see your wheelchair and not you as a woman,” an acquaintance, who I’d recently met and who does not have disabilities herself, said to me. “Around you, people must feel awkward, uncomfortable, and will try to give you a wide berth. They will avoid eye contact with you and hurry on by as if you are invisible. Given you communicate with a writing board, they will also assume you are…” her voice trailed off as she twirled her finger beside her head to give the universally disrespectful symbol for someone who has cognitive disabilities or mental health struggles. Her expression conveyed this perception would be most terrible.

While the acquaintance was full of righteous anger on my behalf against the injustices she assumed people must feel and perpetrate towards me, her words hurt. In my immediate family, two people have cognitive disabilities, my beloved grandma has dementia, and others have fought brave battles against mental health conditions. These are the people I most love in this world. I’m still adjusting to what it means to have had my own disabilities become much more visible over the past year, and so her words also left me shaken, doubting myself, and confused about the motives of others.

One of the things I value most in this world is the ability to connect with people and form genuine, warm relationships with those I believe God has brought across my path and into my life. It hurts my heart to think something as superficial as a piece of metal on wheels that carts me around could get in the way of that. Fortunately, as I look back over the past year, I can recall very few incidents of judgment, compared to time after time after time of genuine kindness, acceptance, and love from the people in my life. I have some great people in my life who have shown me acceptance based on who I am.

Strangers sometimes do take a while to figure out how to relate to and communicate with me, but that could be just as much from the fact that I wheel to the beat of my own drummer. More often than not, after a few moments of conversing with someone new, I sense that the foundational blocks of a relationship have begun construction, in much the way it was in the days before my disabilities were visible and easily apparent.

While I am grateful that my own experiences have largely been positive and contrary to my acquaintance’s negative assumptions, it was an eye-opener for me.  In rapid succession, I then stumbled across two statements this week that further opened my eyes and showed me how education is still needed. The first was by a well-known contemplative author whose work I have previously enjoyed:

“People with disabilities “are considered marginal in our society. They don’t make money; they are not productive and all of that, but they are the real poor. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Blessed are those who care for the poor.’ Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Blessed are those who help the poor.’ He says, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ That means the blessing of God is right there in their vulnerability, in their weakness, and that is what I experience.”- Henri Nouwen

When we group society into one collective thought group that considers people with disabilities as marginal, we close the door to free thought as well as grace-filled acceptance of people despite any abilities or disabilities, weaknesses or strengths they may have to offer as a person. We begin to think in the opposite manner from everyone belonging and having something to offer (beyond offering a “blessing” to others).

This quote makes stigmatizing assumptions that a person with a disability is “less than” anyone else and has less to contribute. I don’t know anyone who wants to be seen as marginal or “the poor.” Further, to state that people with disabilities do not make money or can’t be otherwise “productive” is certainly not the case for all people who have disabilities. There are plenty of people who contribute highly in life, regardless of their disability. Many people are not poor financially, nor lacking in social connections. This is the expectation I have for both of my kids, who have plenty of abilities to contribute to society as a whole. Likewise, many people with and without disabilities are not able to work or earn money.

However, I’ve never met a person, disabled or otherwise, who didn’t contribute in some way to the world around them. I used to work in group homes and schools with individuals with extremely complex physical and cognitive disabilities, and some of these people contributed to my life in such meaningful ways that I still think of them with regularity many years later.

From the bonds we form with each other, to the love in our hearts, to the fact that as living and breathing humans we reflect a sacred image through our very humanity; we all have a place in the world. In terms of blessings… I do hope God’s blessing is on me, but I want it not to be assumed automatically just because I have disabilities. I’d prefer someone dislike me for my stubbornness or the paralyzing shyness that can strike at the most inopportune of times, than like me because my wheelchair is seen as a marginalized weakness that brings blessings.

The second quote, by Michael W. Higgins, does the opposite of “marginalizing.”

“The people who are disabled are our reward.  And they remind us of the deeper truths, the truths that sustain us as a culture, humanize and enoble us…..Those who are intellectually and physically challenged have no time for illusions; they force us to confront the reality, not the false dreamscape of humanness.  They are the true sentinels of our larger hope…

There is something very particular in their kindness, in their afflictions… a great and liberating mystery to touch the bodies of of those who couldn’t communicate verbally.  In fact it was unnecessary to do so; their bodies proclaimed ‘love me.’  Such a communication arose naturally from their very depths of who they are — they are their bodies, broken, ruptured, fragile, incomplete. But theirs are wrapped in love… The tenderness of the disabled heals us, breaks us free…”

On the surface, this may sound like kindness. But delve into the meaning and it becomes clear that to view a person as a reward to “us” because of “their” innate humanity or kindness in “affliction” is to create an “us versus other” world. To see a person as a sentinels of “our larger hope” solely because they have a disability is to patronizingly give that person a wide berth that prevents seeing him or her as a human being. It takes courage sometimes to reach out to each other, despite any differences we have.

My own experience being in a wheelchair has opened my eyes to the fact that it is not our differences that separate one from another, but our fear of those differences. However, when we look into our hearts, we discover we’re all not so different after all. I believe inside of every heart is a desire to be seen as we are, to be accepted for who we are, to know we matter, and to be deeply loved.

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Originally published: February 9, 2017
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