One of the things I love most about life is that there are constant opportunities to learn and grow. Most of the time, I love learning and becoming more open minded, but sometimes learning is painful because it addresses past behavior or ways of thinking that are incorrect. I, like most people, don’t want to be told, “You’re wrong”, so finding out that something I was doing or saying wasn’t right kind of stings. It means I have to admit that I don’t know everything and that it’s okay to be wrong, as long as I learn and grow from it.
Realizing that I need to learn more about something (and maybe even question why I think a certain way) might make me feel kind of crappy in the beginning, but when I start opening my mind and gaining new insight, the resistance, guilt, or whatever other negativity I’m feeling washes away. I feel better knowing that I’m not staying stuck and am trying to better myself and how I interact with the world around me.
This isn’t me trying to toot my own horn and say, “Look at how great I am for trying to be a better human!” This is just me admitting that I don’t always know the right things to say or do, and this leads to opportunities for me to learn and try to do better. I’m admitting that I’m sometimes a shit human being, and when I realize I’m being shitty, I try to stop being that way (but, also, sometimes I don’t try to change, and that’s pretty shitty). Let’s hope the rest of this post isn’t as shitty as this paragraph.
My Newest Learning Experience
I watched Stella Young’s TED Talk yesterday titled, “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much”, and I realized I have fallen into the trap of thinking about people with disabilities in a patronizing way, and not fully appreciating individuals with disabilities for who they are, exactly as they are. This was hard for me to admit to myself because I work with individuals with disabilities and I like to think I don’t hold any biases about them or treat them any differently than people without disabilities. Young’s TED Talk made me realize that while I don’t actively treat people with disabilities negatively, I can be patronizing to them by feeling inspired by their very existence.
It’s very easy to feel inspired when you work where I work. We serve individuals of all abilities, including those with disabilities, and every day we see children and young adults accomplishing goals and jumping hurdles. Sometimes they are doing things doctors said they never would, and sometimes they’re doing exactly what others their age would do. Either way, our participants have great personalities (some of them are downright hilarious), they are capable of so much more than they’re often given credit for, and they have immense value to add to our community.
So some days I find I’m feeling inspired by these kids who are overcoming obstacles from their disabilities, and this is exactly what Young says I’m doing wrong. In her TED Talk, she explains how our society still frames people with disabilities as inspirations more than actual people experiencing the same highs and lows of life as me, a non-disabled person. She says,
I am not here to inspire you. I am here to tell you that we have been lied to about disability. Yeah, we’ve been sold the lie that disability is a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T. It’s a bad thing, and to live with a disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a bad thing, and it doesn’t make you exceptional…For many of us, disabled people are not our teachers, our doctors, or our manicurists. We’re not real people. We are there to inspire.
One Hand-in-Hand participant who I talk with almost every day once told me, “Please don’t tell me I’m inspirational. I’m just doing what other high schoolers are doing.” When she said that to me, I knew that I needed to respect her wishes and stop viewing what she did as inspirational or miraculous in some way, but after a while, I stopped being so vigilant of my thoughts and reactions, and before I knew it, I was viewing her through that inspirational lens again. It’s what I had done for so much of my life, that it was a terribly hard habit to break. Young hits the nail on the head about this when she says,
They’re not doing anything out of the ordinary. They are just using their bodies to the best of their capacity. When people say, ‘You’re an inspiration’, they mean it as a compliment, and it’s because of the lie that disabilities make you exceptional, and it honestly doesn’t. I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning.
That’s so…real. I’ve spent most of my life wanting to be a good person, but I never really knew how to do that around people with disabilities. I always felt awkward and, to be honest, I felt pity for them. When I started working at Hand-in-Hand, I got comfortable with interacting with individuals with disabilities and dropped a lot of my preconceived notions about what they were or weren’t capable of, and instead started viewing them as inspirations who were courageously overcoming their disability. This is such a terrible way to view someone with a disability.
I’ve been working at Hand-in-Hand for 2.5 years now, and I thought I had addressed any biases I still held, and I felt like I was a great advocate for our participants. While I’m not labeling everything I’ve said or done in the last 2.5 years as bad, I know now that I still have a ways to go in being an unbiased advocate and ally for those with disabilities. When I talk about our participants, I need to eliminate patronizing language and not encourage people to feel inspired by them. I should, instead, highlight their genuine achievements, the programs we offer, and how our programs positively affect them and their families. It’s a fine line to walk because part of my job is asking for donations for our programs and it’s very easy to go on and on about our participants, but I’m going to have to find a way to advocate for our programs without using participants as inspiration.
Hand-in-Hand is an incredible organization and I’m so proud to be a part of it. I’m thankful for the opportunity working there offers for learning, opening my mind, eliminating biases I’ve been taught by society, and becoming a better human being. Listening to Young’s TED Talk was something I did in preparation for writing a Hand-in-Hand blog post, but it ended up calling me out and making me question my thoughts and feelings towards our participants. As Young points out in her talk, I don’t feel inspired by our participants because I’m a bad person; but rather because I’ve been taught to feel this way. Now it’s my responsibility to change that. We all need to address this by tackling why we feel inspired and how to change our thoughts and feelings about people with disabilities. If you feel like doing this today, a good place to start would be by watching Young’s TED Talk and listening to the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast episode, “Disability Isn’t a Dirty Word”.
Let’s keep learning together. How have you (or will you in the future) tackled your own biases of disability?