Crumbling the Clay that Surrounds Us

Posted: March 19, 2008 in Disability Deliberations

clay.jpg
By Mark E. Smith

An acquaintance recently emailed me a “day-in-the-life-of-a-disabled-person” video. Of course, I watched the video, and what I saw was a gentlemen with a severe disability getting himself up in the morning – bathing, shaving, and dressing, then catching a bus to work. Then, in the second half of the video he went through his day at work, returned home, went for a swim, had dinner, surfed the web, and went to bed. Put simply, the video showed the gentleman living a strikingly average life, just with the physicality of profound disability mixed in.

What intrigued me about receiving the video, wasn’t the video, itself. After all, it was about as boring as watching myself get ready for the day. Rather, what intrigued me about the video was the forwarded chain of emails that accompanied it, containing countless people writing of their amazement at the gentleman’s day-in-the-life abilities.

This email chain got me thinking: How is it that some still remain so seemingly culturally ignorant toward others that they are somehow enlightened by a video of a guy with a disability doing what everyone else does? I mean I understand that some folks aren’t familiar with those of us with disabilities, but if one sees a man or woman who has a disability, isn’t it a given to assume that he or she has to bathe, eat, and work like everyone else?

The answer, as insane as it sounds, is, no – some people have no understanding that those with disabilities live lives just like everyone else, where bathing, eating, and working are givens. Surely, those with severe disabilities have to overcome more than others in daily tasks, and I argue that those with disabilities cannot live mediocre lives if we wish to succeed, where we must pursue higher levels of education, and push ourselves above and beyond the everyday standards of others if we wish to make our ways to any success in the world at large. But, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that we do mostly the same tasks as everyone else when it comes to daily living.

Last year, I wrote a piece about the television reality show, Little People, Big World, where I expressed my annoyance at the Roloff’s monologues that explain the obvious, such as that those of short stature have difficulty reaching high cabinets – and I noted that television viewers must be smart enough not to need such explanations. However, I received a host of emails stating that I was, indeed, giving the viewing public too much credit, that some folks truly are clueless when it comes to acknowledging those with disabilities and the lives that we lead. In this way, reading the comments on the forwarded email video that I recently received confirmed that notion, where some on the email clearly had no prior understanding that those with disabilities can lead independent lives.

Yet, I don’t believe that disability, in itself, has any influence toward provoking ignorance in others toward how we live. Truly, anyone who’s impressed that those with disabilities get up and go to work in the morning certainly has an overwhelming lack of cultural awareness as a whole, likely clueless toward countless cultures and backgrounds. After all, no one is going to exercise understanding and enlightenment toward people of all races, ethnicities, religions, orientations, and backgrounds, only to exclude disability. Truly, if a person is genuinely astounded that someone with a disability can get himself up for work in the morning, there’s no doubt that that person is uninformed about many others of diversity, where disability is simply one topic among many that’s escaped his or her radar screen.

However, we can’t fault such people – that is, we can’t presume that ignorance toward disability is an offensive act, or that others being impressed by our abilities is patronizing. What we should do is treat others with the same understanding the we, ourselves, seek, and give them the opportunity to learn and embrace us in their own time. Sure, some will watch such a video of the gentleman with a disability getting himself ready for work – or, even see you and me going about our days – and give no thought to the experience of others. Yet, some will watch such a video, or see you and me living life, and it will truly serve as an education, a lesson that they take to heart, an understanding that people are more the same than they are different, a realization that they will apply to many others of diversity, well beyond disability.

I heard the story once of an ancient Asian clay monument that sat in its location for centuries. The government sought to move the statue, needing to make way for a city’s expansion. With the statue being clay, they didn’t want to damage it in the move, so they called in the best cranes and operators, striving to delicately lift the monument. Unfortunately, in the process, the clay began crumbling, piece by piece. And, what was exposed underneath the clay astounded everyone: A solid gold core. The outer clay was simply a facade, where no one had ever sought to look at what was beyond it, leaving it’s true value unrecognized for centuries.

As people, we’re often quick to not only hide behind our own facades, but also to go through our lives oblivious to the tremendous depths of others around us. In this way, what I found truly remarkable about the gentleman’s day-in-the-life-of-disability video, was that he was generous enough to expose the intimacies of his life to others, and as illustrated through the forwarded email chain, others were receptive enough to learn from the video, to ultimately see past the clay, to recognize the gold within each of us.

And, that’s the answer to my question of, when will some people stop being so culturally ignorant toward those with disabilities – that is, when we, as those with disabilities, are gracious enough to forgo our facades and welcome all others into our lives, presenting them with invaluable opportunities to learn.

Comments
  1. hlakile says:

    Mark, excellent blog you have going here!

    I am a person that injured my back in a family car accident and the result was me being caught between hemiplegia and paraplegia. I can walk with difficulty using crutches, but for long distances I have to rely on my wheelchair.

    Your observations are on the spot, as you know. I believe persons with disabilities are put into the elderly / sick / useless category on a subconcious level. Whenever a person with a disability is noticed, it is always assumed that help is needed. There is no respect or equality involved. You are seen as a burden that has to be carried.

    Unfortunately this is a deathtrap that few persons with disability escapes. Society is not even ready for dealing with racism, let alone disabilitism! Blogs like yours is a giant step forward in the fight against ignorance and disrespect. Great going!

  2. Matt says:

    Mark,

    My wife and I are pregant with our first child and the doctors tell us she has severe spina bifida and will never walk. Our due date is August 27th but between now and then we are caught between praying for a miracle and preparing for a wheelchair.

    Your blog is a breath of fresh air and confirms how I felt when I worte this: http://thedawgrun.blogspot.com/2008/04/miracles-to-consider.html

    Keep up the blog – I will be checking in regularly for the encouragement you provide!

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