By Mark E. Smith
What would most call a 25-year-old who never went to college or worked, and is entirely supported by his parents, living at home, playing video games all day and night?
A slacker or loser might be the most common labels.
Or, what would most call a 33-year-old who doesn’t work, but pops prescription pain pills, smokes pot, and drinks around the clock, living in a filthy apartment?
An addict or junkie might be the most common labels.
Now, let me add in a single fact about these two individuals, and see if your perceptions change. What if the 25-year-old who never went to college or worked, and is entirely supported by his parents, living at home, playing video games all day and night, has severe cerebral palsy? Do you think anyone would dare call him a slacker or loser?
Or, what if the 33-year-old who doesn’t work, but pops prescription pain pills, smokes pot, and drinks around the clock, living in a filthy apartment, was a veteran, paralyzed while serving in Iraq? Would anyone dare to call him an addict or a junkie?
The answer in both these cases is, absolutely not. In fact, the opposite is true: Most people would call the guy with cerebral palsy an inspiration, while calling the paralyzed veteran a hero.
How is it, though, that disability unto itself changes peoples’ perceptions so radically, that a seeming loser becomes an inspiration, and a seeming junkie becomes a hero?
In a few words, a lack of societal expectations toward those with disabilities. The fact is, as far as we’ve come toward disability awareness and acceptance, the mainstream still has low expectations of us, they let us slide, they make excuses for us. And, worst yet, they often enable our poor behavior with positive reinforcement:
Isn’t great how his parents take care of him, cerebral palsy and all – that must be tough. But, look how happy he is, always smiling and playing video games. That family is a real inspiration.
Man, could you imagine going to Iraq to serve your country, then coming back in a wheelchair? But, look at him, just living life, drinking at the bar like everyone else. That guy’s a true hero.
In these ways, many with disabilities not only find themselves surrounded by lowered expectations, but are actually praised for poor behavior. It’s very much the same dynamic that fallen celebrities encounter, where even when they’re at their very lowest points in life – addicted to drugs, broke, unemployed – enablers around them still convince them that they’re stars and that their behavior is somehow acceptable.
So, the question then becomes, how does one with a disability escape the trap of “disability enablers” and the lowered expectations that all but encourage no accountability?
By immediately recognizing that the voices that one’s been listening to can’t be trusted, period.
When one is a 25-year-old with cerebral palsy who never went to college or worked, and is entirely supported by his parents, living at home, playing video games all day and night, a fire alarm should be going off in his head, screaming that dire changes are needed quickly. Mommy, Daddy, and the rest of society have been flat-out lying, preventing his success simply based on low disability expectations – and he must stick up for his own integrity because obviously no one else has.
Similarly, when one is a 33-year-old paralyzed veteran who doesn’t work, but pops prescription pain pills, smokes pot, and drinks around the clock, he needs to realize that those patting him on the back, calling him a hero, can’t be trusted – they’re not placing any appropriate expectations on him, just indirectly fueling the dangerous fire burning within. Every yahoo in a bar will buy him a drink, calling him a hero, but none will look at him slumped over the table at the end of the night and say, “Dude, your life is a freakin’ wreck – you need to get your act together.” He needs to realize that, with the same vigor that he defended his country, he must now defend himself – that is, fight for his own emotional health and sobriety because no one else likely will.
As blunt as it is, those of us with disabilities need to recognize that being an uneducated, unemployed, 25-year-old with cerebral palsy, living with Mommy and Daddy isn’t an inspiration, he’s a slacker, on par with any other 25-year-old do-nothing. And, a 33-year-old veteran who returns from Iraq, paralyzed, only to bounce from day to day on prescription drugs, pot, and alcohol needs to recognize that he isn’t a hero, he’s an addict, on par with any other addict. And, contrary to what one’s family, friends, or society may say, we need to recognize that disability – no matter its origin or extent – is never an excuse for poor, self-defeating behavior.
Now, surely my words may seem harsh to some – specifically, to those with low expectations of those with disabilities – but, my principles derive from absolute merit, or, more aptly, universal expectations. See, in the truest sense of equality, disability is a part of who we are, but it’s not an excuse for what we are. We, nor anyone else, should factor in disability as a limit to our personal responsibility or accountability. Let me make this very clear: Anyone who thinks that not going to school or work because of disability makes one inspiring, or thinks that living as an addict because of one’s injury qualifies one as a hero, has not only been tricked by society’s low expectations, but is also fooling oneself – a slacker, addict, or chump is no way to live, regardless of disability.
Some might also argue that I’m over simplifying disability experience by placing the same expectations on those with disabilities that are placed on those without disabilities. After all, isn’t it an exponentially tougher plight for one with cerebral palsy to go to college and get a job than others, or isn’t it devastating to return as a severely-injured veteran?
Yes and yes. But, they’re not reasons or excuses to live in defeat, ever. It wasn’t a piece of cake when I went through college – but I had expectations, and did it. And, it hasn’t been easy for an acquaintance of mine who was paralyzed in Iraq, spending several years now in counseling, getting his head straight, clean and sober – but he’s lived up to his expectations as a father and husband. See, that’s the magic of expectations – the minute that you have them, you automatically find personal accountability, and at that point, virtually any challenge is accomplishable.
If you are a loved-one or friend of someone with a disability, place only the highest of expectations upon them. Don’t fail the one you care about by viewing his or her disability as an excuse; rather, elevate your expectations of him or her, and assist toward finding solutions for his or her education, employment, housing, mental health, and sobriety. Be an elevator of expectations, not an enabler of dysfunction.
And, for all of us with disabilities, we need to disregard the voices of those who bestow us with the patronizing, self-defeating labels of inspirations and heroes, get our heads on straight, and start doing what’s right: Living as accountable, responsible, self-motivated adults who don’t buy into disability as an overall get-by-for-free card. Then, in time, when others label us as inspirational or as a hero, maybe we’ll humbly resemble one: Educated, employed, sober, successful, taking care of our families, and giving back to our communities – those are the traits that make people real, everyday inspirations and heroes.