On Schooling Incorrigibles

Posted: August 6, 2008 in Disability Deliberations


By Mark E. Smith

A non-disabled friend and I recently discussed whether employer-sponsored disability-awareness programs are truly effective – that is, does giving employees a course on how to interact with people with disabilities truly change the way that they view others of physical diversity, as in those who use wheelchairs?

As an ideal, my argument is that if a company’s workforce, as a whole, doesn’t know how to treat all people with acceptance and equality, it’s a systemic issue that needs to be addressed through better employee screening during the hiring process, not through retraining those presently employed. However, I recognize that such an ideal is not realistic, as you truly can’t ever know the entire fabric of those who you interview during the screening process. Therefore, it’s all but impossible to create my view of a Utopian a workforce where every single employee is accepting of diversity from the start, especially in large companies.

In the way that a Utopian workforce of disability acceptance can’t be created, then responsible companies must strive to train and educate their workforces toward recognizing and accepting cultural diversity, including disability. However, this brings us back to my original question: Does giving employees a course on how to interact with people with disabilities truly change the way that the employees view others?

In some cases it does; but, in a lot of cases it doesn’t. The fact is, as humans, our instinct is to be hesitant toward the unfamiliar – it’s our survival mode. Fortunately, we also have the capacity to learn very quickly, and so when we encounter that which is new and different, we’re initially cautious, but then we use our intellect to best understand how we should approach a particular situation, building comfort and acceptance.

My entire life, I’ve seen people’s natural hesitance come into play regarding my disability, where some people have been understandably apprehensive upon first meeting me, never having interacted with someone with a disability; but, then they quickly warm up to me, recognizing that I’m just like everyone else. This process of becoming comfortable with my disability takes seconds for some; and, for others, it takes them longer. And, I’m sure that you, yourself, have experienced or observed this toward disability, where some people just need more time than others to become comfortable with those of diversity.

Of course, employees are people first, and certainly experience this same learning curve – that is, they may be understandably apprehensive about those with disabilities if they’ve never encountered such diversity. And, in these cases, when employees go through a disability-awareness program, a light bulb turns on in their heads, where being exposed to disability – becoming familiar with it – allows them to realize, “Yep, people with disabilities are just like me.”

Yet, there are those employees where disability-awareness programs – or any diversity training – will never enlighten their views of others. In fact, you could force some employees to sit through a course six times – and even teach it! – and they still wouldn’t recognize the equality or commonality in others. No, such a discomfort or closed mind toward others doesn’t necessarily make them bad employees; but it certainly limits their potentials, where they simply won’t succeed in working with all people, behind the scenes or in public.

Interestingly, as those with disabilities, many of us personally encounter those who are apprehensive or non-accepting of us, of our disabilities, in all areas of our lives – from waitresses to co-workers to family members. And, although some around us try to hide it, it’s often blatantly obvious, as when a co-worker raises her voice three octaves when she speaks to you, like you’re a seven-year-old at the pediatric dentist, and she’s the nurse trying to keep you calm: You just sit here in Mr. Comfy Chair, and we’ll put on the happy mask like this, and when we’re all done, if you’re a good little tyke, you can go pick out a treat from the toy chest!

I know that for many with disabilities, it’s a natural reaction to want to educate those who don’t treat us with the normality and dignity that we deserve. However, just as employers can’t ultimately train all employees to sincerely accept diversity in others, where it becomes a waste of company resources to try to teach the unreachable, we can’t waste our own time trying to change the way some individuals view us as those with disabilities in everyday life. The fact is, there will always be some people who will simply treat us differently due to our disabilities no matter how hard we strive to educate them – and trying to educate them till we’re blue in the face does no one any good.

I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in my life despite disability, and I know that it occasionally helps me overcome some interpersonal hurdles, where if someone knows of my accomplishments, they can be a little more open to meeting and working with me, putting my disability a little less in the forefront of our interactions. However, there are those who will never, ever find acceptance of me as one with cerebral palsy. I could take that proverbial high-pitched co-worker into a room, show her my college degrees, my career successes, my books, articles about me, awards, my finances, my daughter, how I’ve striven to make a difference in the world – and how my omnipotent disability power allows me to biblically roll on water! – and she’d still talk to me like I’m a seven-year-old.

And, I’m entirely fine with it – that is, I’m OK with people who will never have the capacity to view me, as one with disability, on an even playing field with others.

Now, you’re probably screaming at me right now, “Mark, it’s not OK for people to dismiss those of us with disabilities in any way!”

And, you’d be right – it’s not acceptable for anyone to dismiss those of us with disabilities. But, some people do dismiss us, demonstrating no capacity for growth and understanding, and it’s not our roles in life to try to educate or change them. In fact, if we allow ourselves to fall into the trap of trying to educate those with closed minds, of trying to prove ourselves as those with disabilities, we end up merely stalling our own lives, wasting our own time, detracting from our own potentials for success.

See, disability or not, life is a simple return on investment, where we achieve success by focusing our efforts on the areas in our lives that make the most difference for us and others in our lives. Getting ourselves riled up into feeling compelled to change others’ ways toward us, when they’ve demonstrated no capacity for change, does absolutely nothing for us – it’s completely futile. I say, chuckle at that co-worker talking to you like a seven-year-old – her behavior is of no ultimate consequence to you – and when she’s wasting her time doing that, you should be focusing on how you’re going to knock the sales ball out of the park with that innovative business plan that you’ve been working on. Live your life solely focused on your true potentials, ignoring those who don’t have the capacity to fully embrace you or others, and you’ll go far in any situation.

Indeed, my disability-awareness program comes down to a simple course for all of those around me: As one with a disability, I live my life. On my grading scale, some people immediately accept me; some take time to accept me; and, others will never accept me. In other words, 66.6% of my program graduate, and even though I don’t pay any attention to the other 33.3% who flunk, I suspect that they go on to great careers in pediatric dentistry.

Comments
  1. MARIA DEWAN says:

    EITHER YOU GET IT OR YOU DON’T. YOU CAN’T TEACH SOMEONE SENSITIVITY OR COMMONSENSE.

    THIS WOULD MAKE A GREAT TOPIC FOR AN EPISODE OF “THE OFFICE”.

  2. Zhahn Doe says:

    Nicely said – I really enjoy reading your articles, and agree with you about 99% of the time. Probably why you are the Dolphin Whisperer….Tony

  3. Pat Dobbins says:

    I so agree! Where I work, the people who most need sensitivity training and diversity education are the ones who never show up for it! In fact, the company has now disbanded the office that provided this training.

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