Have you ever felt unequipped to handle the entirety of your disability, wondering how you could succeed among such seeming adversities in life?
Now, imagine if someone was there to support you during those discouraging moments – those times when you may have wondered how you were going to get through another day – where someone put a hand on your shoulder and said, “Believe me, I’ve been where you’ve been, with my own disability, and I know that you not only have the strength and the spirit to pull through this, but the abilities to make a tremendous mark on the world.” Just think of the difference that such a person would have in your life.
The truth is, none of us succeed in life on our own, including with disability. At some point, we simply need others to believe in us, to inspire us, to encourage our potentials in life. In fact, I’ve never met or heard of a tremendously successful person who didn’t credit someone else – a parent, a teacher, a boss, a spouse – for his or her successes in life. After all, the decisive factor in many of our paths is whether we simply have the confidence – the belief in ourselves – to pursue our dreams and goals. And, for many people, much of their confidence was established by others encouraging them along the way.
If you’ve spent any time living with disability, no matter your own or relating to someone who you care about, then you know that there are some downright discouraging cultural messages conveyed. We hear of continued discrimination and defeating statistics, such as 62% of those with disabilities are unemployed. We frequently witness family members lowering expectations of their loved ones with disabilities, such as implying day after day that disability is an inherently limiting factor. And, we witness public dismissing of those with disabilities, such as a restaurant waitress speaking to the able-bodied patron instead of directly to the person with the disability. Indeed, these negative social queues can certainly shake one’s confidence toward living with disability.
However, as many of us know, those discouraging factors ultimately have no significance toward our individual lives, toward our own successes with disability. We know that we have the capacity to see beyond any subjective social barriers, and move our lives forward, entirely undaunted by discouraging statistics, unsupportive families, or social stigmas. We know that we are capable, productive, impactful people above and beyond disability, just as with all others who live their lives to their fullest potential.
The question then becomes, how does one move one’s life from being burdened by negative cultural messages regarding disability, and rise to the level of self-confidence needed to truly succeed in life?
Someone offers encouragement along the way – it’s that simple.
In my own life, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had two people along the way believe in me, one in my early twenties who encouraged my education and writing, and another who’s encouraged my mobility career over the years. And, make no mistake, I wouldn’t be the same person – nor would my career be the same – if it wasn’t for these two people encourage me and believing in me, helping me set my expectations of myself. After all, when we know that others believe in our abilities to make a difference in the world, we can’t help but wish to live up to their expectations, fostering our personal growth in the process.
Interestingly, you’ll note that I stated that I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had two people encourage me during my life, as it is true for many with disabilities that encouraging people can be hard to find. However, while encouraging people can prove scarce, they’re entirely easy to become – all we have to do is reach out to others with our own support and encouragement, letting them know that we see their potential, that we appreciate their vying and victories, that we believe in them.
It’s my belief that, as those with disabilities, we have a responsibility to serve roles of positivity and encouragement toward our peers with disabilities, where we have insight to reach out to others, recognizing their potential, saying to them, “I’ve been where you’ve been, with my own disability, and I know that you not only have the strength and the spirit to pull through this, but the abilities to make a tremendous mark on the world.” We should simply strive to be the ones who help others find their own strength and confidence toward successful living with disability, just as others have done for us.
Now, maybe you’re saying, “Mark, I’m struggling to find my own strength and confidence, with little success toward living with my own disability – I’m in no position to encourage others.”
To the contrary, you’re in every position to encourage others. See, encouraging others is from who you are, speaking as one person to another, and it’s your sincere efforts and belief in others that makes a difference in their lives, not your track record or resume’. I mean, think about how great it feels when a complete stranger compliments you – you know nothing about the person, but his or her words make all of the difference to you. The reality is, it doesn’t take a saint to make a difference in someone’s life, just your sincere effort toward encouragement.
Surely, encouraging others with sincerity seems like a selfless act, as it should be – after all, we help people because we know that they have remarkable potential, not because we expect our own reward. However, as I’ve learned, encouraging others is remarkably reciprocal, where our encouragement of others often encourages us in return, where their inspired efforts lead us to believe more in our own potential. In one of my most valued relationships, years ago I reached out to a young lady who seemed to be struggling with disability, only to find myself forever inspired by her efforts to better her life. As a result, while she’ll kindly tell you that I encouraged her life for the better, she’s certainly encouraged my life for the better – that is, somewhere during our friendship, we forgot who’s encouraging whom, both finding encouragement from each other toward living with disability.
Of course, no matter our positive outlooks in life, we will still encounter those who engage in the complete opposite of encouragement, where rather than trying to uplift others with disabilities, they try to top their misery – If you think your life is bad, wait till you hear about mine! – turning every conversation about living with disability into a pity party. These types of life-is-terrible conversations do nothing more than pull both people down farther. In everyday terms, if we see a fire, it’s our obligation to help put it out, not pour gasoline on it – that is, let us use our words and actions to uplift others with disabilities, not foster negative disability views with woe-is-me conversations.
Amazingly, it doesn’t take an extraordinary effort to make a difference in the lives of others living with disability – often, just a few focused, kind words that encourage one’s good efforts. If you know of someone struggling with disability, jump in and let him or her know that it will get easier, that you recognize his or her potential for success in the face of adversity. If you know someone with a disability who’s striving to move his or her life forward, jump in and cheer him or her, letting him or her know that you recognize the sure-to-come achievement. And, if you know someone with a disability who may not recognize all that he or she has to offer the world, jump in and point out that you and many others believe that he or she has the capacity that it takes to go far in life.
Put simply, we can better all of our lives as those with disabilities by being among the most encouraging, supportive peers possible, where we don’t ever pass on the opportunity to simply put our hand on a friend’s shoulder, and state those four empowering words: I believe in you.