Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Dispelling Disability Myths

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a Cub Scout group, boys aged 10. Turns out their June focus was learning about people with disabilities.  For me this was the perfect venue – my love for kids combined with my expert knowledge about being disabled.

With this age group, I could see a clear struggle between what they were thinking and what would be appropriate to ask and how to ask it.  The kids were predictably age-appropriate when they saw me for the first time.  Let’s face it – sitting in a wheelchair and missing 3 limbs looks really disabled to all people, especially a 10-year-old.

First of all, I will say it again – kids are honest.  Ten-year-olds are just young enough to show their disbelief, trepidation, uncertainty, and yes, even shock but old enough to know they must be polite.  I could see the questions swirling in their minds.  Moments like these are so easy for me.  It is no challenge to guide kids through this awkwardness and help them understand that their reactions and questions are perfectly normal.  I explained that while I do have a different body and must do things differently, I can still do lots of things.  I am just like them, just in a different body, not so mysterious at all.  They were definitely surprised when they learned that I went to college, learned how to drive and swim, got married, and had a job.  After a few minutes, they relaxed and became much more engaging with me. 

There was no need for me to prepare for this meeting.  I didn’t have my usual public-speaking anxiety.  I knew the kids would lead the discussion, and I knew just how to get them started.  Taking some advantage of the fact that I looked very disabled, my first question to them was “What is the very first thing you think of when you see a disabled person?”  Quickly and simultaneously, two of the boys asked, “How can we help them?” and “How do they do things?”  See?!!  A perfectly effortless place for me to start!!

I first quickly dispelled the notion that disabled people inherently need help.  I told them to treat disabled people just as they would anyone else and never to just automatically assume that help was needed.  If someone needs help, they will ask.  Assuming that help is needed based on looks alone is rude and demeaning. 

Next I approached the question, “How do they do things?”  I told them that disabled people are real people and that they are experts at adapting.  I explained using an example of the meaning of adapt – like the blind not reading with their eyes but with their fingers.  The important thing is that they can read.  It would be wrong to assume they couldn’t read just because they couldn’t see.  Doing things differently might take longer to do, but the disabled almost always find a way.  While some things may look hard to able-bodied people, many times, it’s not hard at all for the disabled person.  The kids were noticeably surprised when I told them all the things I could do, things that weren’t so hard at all for me.  I explained that they should never make assumptions about anyone ever based on how they look, no matter if they are disabled or not.  Slowly, their uneasiness melted away and they began to understand that I was not that mysterious at all.

Kids are my favorite audience.  From this experience, I realized that my efforts are best focused on the younger population because teaching them young is the best way for future changes in adult behavior.