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“As a society, we tend to celebrate those that perform well hurt and we criticize or even demonize those that ask for help or otherwise show weakness” Dr. Jamie Marich

Sensationalized, Patronized, Infantilized, Admired, Glamorized, even Demonized. Those with disabilities are always being treated in a certain way or given a label by those around them. Warrior, Overcomer, or Inspiration just to name a few, but the list is rather endless and not always positive. Disabled people are no stranger to hearing statements like “just think positive” “you are strong/brave” or “just have faith.” “Don’t give up hope” is the one I despise the most as it’s always everyone’s come back to me for daring to speak about the reality of life with a disability. At the same time as we hear those statements, though it’s never said outright, many people believe that those with disabilities are, should, and can only ever be poster children and spokespeople for their conditions. Unfortunately, all of these are the perfect setup for a person with a disability to feel like there is no way to win, and no escape from what the world views as “just life” leading to the opposite of the intended positive message resulting in a very negative outcome.

Headlines in media are meant to grab attention and pull at your heartstrings because society deems disability as a negative thing, wrong, or bad. These types of headlines can be and are often seen as offensive by disabled people. You’ve seen the headlines I’m sure.

Deaf Man Teaches Deaf Puppy Sign Language.

Dance/Singing Troup Created For Adults with Down Syndrome.

Girl/Boy Missing A Hand Or Hands Accepted Into World Famous Dance Company.

Two Ballet Dancers With CP Share Dance Part In Nutcracker.

Girl In Wheelchair Plays Part Of Dorothy In Wizzard Of Oz…With Service Dog.

7 Year Old Born Without Hands Wins Award For Writing.

Man At Local Salon Cuts Hair For Boy With Autism.

Sadly, those are just a few of the headlines I’ve personally seen recently and I haven’t even touched on the endless Memes that exist. While memes are meant to be positive or humorous they are degrading to those with disabilities. Humor at the expense of someone else’s experience, circumstances, or otherwise what are seen as shortcomings is never funny or OK. The same can be said about the topic of this post. While headlines or attention drawn to a disabled person is intended to be positive it can be offensive.

Most of these perspectives on disability get seen as putting a person with a disability in the spotlight for a deserving accomplishment. Some can even argue that it’s well-meaning and a great thing. However, it also sets forth the idea that those with disabilities can not accomplish much of anything. It puts focus on a disability rather than a genuine talent a person has and who they are as a person. Both of which are negative, demeaning and cruel. It creates a very misinformed idea of what disability is or isn’t, and gives the wrong idea to the world about disabilities, and the people who struggle with them. Disability is a struggle, not a talent. Not to be confused with saying those with disabilities are not talented because they are.

Let’s unpack what I mean by looking at some of the news headlines I listed above:

Deaf Man Teaches Deaf Puppy Sign Language.

For a deaf person to own and successfully independently care for a dog, the dog needs to understand sign language. A dog, deaf or otherwise, understanding sign language isn’t uncommon. It is often used when training a service dog as is using commands in other languages. The reason both are used is that it allows the handler to remain safe when in public as a result of people who try and distract the dog by calling or trying to get them to do different things. When out and about in the world anyone should be free to feel safe! Being deaf does not, nor should it mean, that someone can not own or care for a pet. Yet, showing up in the media in this way sure as heck implies that’s what it means.

Dance/Singing Troup Created For Adults with Down Syndrome.

One’s ability to dance or sing is not limited by, or better or worst because of something like Down Syndrome. The only reason a separate group has to exist is because of society having a narrow-minded view of disability. There is no reason why someone with Down Syndrome can not belong to a dance or singing group with anyone who isn’t disabled.

Girl/Boy Missing A Hand Or Hands Accepted Into World Famous Dance Company.

When someone thinks of dancing they usually think of graceful movements using the feet. Sure, there are twirls, flips, and spins that can be part of dancing creating a unique challenge when you are missing a limb. So what if the dancer cant twirl and flip in a way that requires balancing or using the hands to do so safely? Are they not dancing because of being unable to do those things? Are they not a good enough dancer because of being prevented by a physical limitation beyond their control? Because, honestly, if that’s what people think it’s cruel and wrong. How do you think you would feel?

Girl In Wheelchair Plays Part Of Dorothy In Wizard Of Oz…With Service Dog.

Being in a wheelchair does not, in any way, determine how great or successful a person is or can be as an actor. It also shouldn’t be a limiting factor in determining their ability to perform on stage. Stages can just as easily have a ramp for wheelchair access as they can have stairs. If people were more willing to assist people with disabilities freely with the correct accommodations when needed or assistance when we drop things out of reach rather than scold or put us down, we really wouldn’t require service dogs for that purpose.

Man At Local Salon Cuts Hair For Boy With Autism.

NEWSFLASH in case anyone wasn’t aware hair cuts are not unique to disability. Having autism doesn’t mean that the boy would be unaware of what is being said about him in the paper. It also doesn’t mean it’s OK to talk about it publicly without his consent, which can happen. He still has feelings like everyone else and is deserving of respect. All people with disabilities do. Sure, autism comes with struggles sometimes making things like getting a haircut a living nightmare for the person. But, that doesn’t mean someone cutting hair, in a way that helps someone deal with aspects of a disability they struggle with, is deserving of a gold medal because they did it. It’s a simple act of kindness that every human being is deserving of. Modifications or adaptation should not be seen as an evil demon or in any negative way. They are the difference between what we can do and what we can’t.

Disability can come to anyone in many ways. It can be something you are born with, develop over time, or all of a sudden unexpectedly change your life. Just because someone walks out of a door tomorrow and gets ran over by a car, and results in becoming wheelchair-bound, doesn’t mean that they are more deserving of empathy, respect, or care than I am because I am in a wheelchair that is a result of a condition I was born with. Yet, sometimes, that’s how the world can leave me feeling. People choose to use “tough love” with me and see the person whose life completely changed instantly as deserving of kindness. Don’t get me wrong, I think the person who ends up in a wheelchair is deserving of kindness but what I don’t understand is how the world can see the same result in a completely different light depending on the circumstances. There is maybe a sense of it’s all I’ve ever known so it’s not as bad which I can’t deny. Unlike a person who ends up in a wheelchair as a result of a car wreck or being run over, there is no sense of loss in my situation as there is in that one. That is not an acceptable excuse for mistreating anyone.

The truth of the matter is what can be meant to build us up can tear us down and destroy us. We want to fit and we want to belong but most of all we want to be seen as individuals with unique personalities, talents, hobbies and interests, and abilities. To see us in that way requires you to make the accommodations and modifications where they are needed. All those things are what make a person, not a disability. We want to be given the chance to be in the world freely and purely as nothing more than ourselves but we can’t as long as the world continues to draw attention to us for a disability that we didn’t choose. Seeing bravery and strength in people who are merely doing their best to work with what they have in a world that is designed with the expectation that square pegs can fit in round holes.

We aren’t brave and we aren’t strong. We are merely doing the best we can to cope with what life so unfairly throws at us to deal with. Disability doesn’t make a hero. A society with a flawed perspective makes having a disability a heroic act or weakness and flaw that by the grace of others is seen as something that can and should be fixed or made better. When this simply isn’t attainable, it creates false hope and disappointment. If the world didn’t view us as needing to be fixed we would never see ourselves as broken.

I don’t need to be the hero you need me to be. I can’t put on a cape and muster up the superhuman qualities you see in me. While living with a disability is, or at least can be a full-time job, part of that job is not to be the person that builds you up when you are down because of some perceived struggle that may or may not be a reality for me as a disabled person. My life is a challenge, messy, and unpleasant but denying that it is doesn’t change it. It does make me try my hardest to hide it, push through it, and pretend it doesn’t exist which is careless and unsafe yet expected and even demanded.

Living my life differently, because I have to, doesn’t make me responsible for your expectations of how I should be in the world, perceptions of what that looks like, or reactions to it. Focus on the person, not their ability or disability. Choose education over ignorance. Choices you do have over a situation where having a disability doesn’t leave one. I’m just a human, not your superhero.

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