Monday, November 9, 2015

Naive Stereotyping

I was born in 1954 in Kansas (moving to Nebraska shortly thereafter) – in a time and place where mentally and physically disabled people were often placed in a “home,” a facility created for such a purpose.  The severity of the disability also played in the decision.  Apparently, it was felt that these facilities could/would provide the specialized care and equipment that would be needed – care and equipment not readily known or easily provided by the average parent. 

My physical disability was quite obvious at birth.  I had no legs and only one arm.  The doctors didn’t even think I would live (interesting that a missing limb or limbs were a threat to life).  Looking for answers, my parents were advised by the doctors that placement in such a “home” was their recommendation so my father embarked on a journey to find one that would best serve my needs.

The search took him as far away as Boston and many places in between.  I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I been placed in one of these homes.  Would have I ever known my parents and eventual 6 siblings?  Would have I graduated from college?  Would have I been employed?  Would have I learned to be independent?  Fortunately, my parents took me home, opting to learn on the fly how to raise a disabled child.

My book, My Extraordinary Life describes my journey.  Despite having only one limb, my life was quite “ordinary.”  From a very young age (crawling), I was expected to do what “normal” kids did.  I was given no special allowances or excuses.  My Dad told everyone in the family, and eventually me, that I needed to try things first, and if I could not do them, I could ask for help.  That turned out to be a brilliant philosophy because I learned to live my life without expecting any concessions.  I believed I could do anything, and I found a way without even knowing I was looking for a way.  I was in college before it occurred to me that others were seeing my life as far from “ordinary.” 

I grew up, graduated from high school and college, learned to drive a car, moved from Nebraska to California, got an apartment, got a medical transcription job, learned to swim, lived alone for many years and then got married – certainly an ordinary life.  My book details the joys and struggles of these events.  It wasn’t always easy.  I would eventually come to realize as well that despite these ordinary accomplishments, the world would always see my disability first.  Predictable, but entirely inaccurate, assumptions about me and my life would persist.  The realization that these assumptions would continue despite my “ordinary” life was a painful one. 

In my book, I provide some thoughts and advice for those who are disabled, those who care for the disabled, families of the disabled, and those who are not disabled.  I provide some valuable tips for children when they see a disabled person for the first time.

I am extremely grateful that I did not end up in a “home” because my life would have been very, very different.  I am indebted to a family who unwittingly executed an exemplary approach to raising a disabled child.  Because of my disability, and perhaps in spite of it, I have learned more than the ordinary patience, empathy, tolerance, and priorities.  It is my hope that much can be realized about disabled people after reading my book.

One should never stereotype because the label or assumption is very likely to be very wrong.  Given the opportunity to be “ordinary,” the disabled can, and often do, reach surprising heights, and they don’t see anything extraordinary about it.  Some roads are winding and some are straight, but both roads can be traveled.  When meeting a disabled person, always remember to think before you stereotype.