By Mark E. Smith
Years ago, I taught a semester-long course at a community college, focusing on overall study skills for struggling students. During the test-taking strategies portion of my class, I discussed the importance of not getting hung up on questions to which you don’t know the answer; rather, you should keep moving on through the test, answering the questions that you do know, so that you don’t run out of time due to wracking your brain on lost causes. Put simply, don’t throw away easily-answered questions because you get hung up on questions that you can’t answer, wasting valuable time.
This same principle holds true when it comes toward addressing others who demonstrate ignorance or bigotry toward disability. Let us not focus on trying to educate others who obviously will never accept those of us with disabilities. Rather, let us focus on those who may not initially understand disability, but demonstrate a willingness to learn, grow, and accept others on common ground, using our efforts and time wisely to bring positive, effective change.
I recently received an email from a higher-up in the mobility industry. The email expressed the individual’s assessment of wheelchair users as a whole, from the individual’s view as an able-bodied person working in the wheelchair industry. No, the individual didn’t send it to me, personally, and for good reason: This person’s views expressed in the email conveyed little more than bigoted contempt for consumers who use wheelchairs – it was belittling and dehumanizing toward those with disabilities.
Of course, as email works, this email found its way to me through several forwards, landing in my email box, both because the original subject, a consumer issue, related to my industry roles, and also because others in the email chain clearly had a conscience, implying, Mark, can you believe this person not only thinks this, but actually emailed it!
So, I had this email on my screen, from an industry person belittling those with disabilities, where I rightfully felt anger as a consumer advocate, embarrassment as an industry leader, and hurt as one with a disability – but, what was I to do with the email, and how should I respond?
To their credit, others in the email chain had already replied to the person, subtly hinting to the individual that the condemnation of those with disabilities was off-base. However, the situation surely warranted far stronger action – the person logically needed to be escorted to the door of the mobility industry. After all, if one believes that those with disabilities are beneath oneself, belittling and mocking them in a “professional” email, one has no place in the mobility industry.
For a moment, I debated forwarding the email to the person’s boss, someone of great integrity, who I trust would be mortified that an employee was emailing such belligerence, not just toward those with disabilities, but toward their company’s literal customers, all in one malicious swoop.
But, I didn’t forward the email to the person’s boss, nor did I reply with spite or a lecture. I simply replied toward the consumer issue that apparently triggered the person’s bigoted email, and I addressed that topic professionally and calmly, glossing over the individual’s belligerence toward those of us with disabilities.
So, why didn’t I pursue any type of “corrective action” toward the person who sent such a disturbing email belittling those with disabilities? Why did I just let it seemingly slide?
Because, as one with a disability, I know better than to waste my time on those who clearly demonstrate a lack of capacity toward accepting others of diversity. I knew in the instance of that email that my larger efforts for the day were best served by taking a deep breath, recognizing the futility of the situation, and getting back to work in the areas of my profession where I could make a difference. In blunt terms, I had a lot of work to do that day, and I would serve no one by wasting my time admonishing a person who demonstrates no capacity for rational thought or acceptance of others.
The fact is, that person’s disdain toward those with disabilities was made explicitly clear in the email – and seeing that the person is older, having worked in the mobility industry for some time, I recognized that no one was going to change that person’s attitude. Sure, we can reach out others who simply aren’t familiar with those with disabilities, and help them see that there’s no difference between those with or without disability. However, when someone works in the mobility industry, then degrades those with disabilities behind what one thinks are closed doors, no one’s changing that arrogant, belligerent person’s attitude, ever.
Now, you maybe thinking, But, Mark, you can’t just let someone like that continue on with such hurtful behavior.
Actually, I’m more than glad to let people of no seeming redemption continue on with wherever life leads them. Again, we can’t waste our time and effort on lost causes. Sure, I could get myself all riled up, focus all my might toward “showing that person.” Yet, it would have no effect on that person in the end, but would consume my time and detract from my own life. Look at it this way, even if the person who wrote the email was fired, it wouldn’t change the person’s bigoted view one bit toward those of us with disabilities, so what truly would come from my – or anyone’s – raising a fuss?
The answer is, nothing. Yes, it might force the person out of the mobility industry, but it wouldn’t change the person’s attitude toward those with disabilities – and, it’s the changing of an attitude for the better that’s the goal. Therefore, if you can’t create true change in someone of seeming ignorance, don’t waste your time. See, our mission has to be to make a positive difference in others’ lives, and if we waste our time hassling those who demonstrate no willingness to learn or change, we miss out on more productive opportunities.
I should note that one must not confuse dismissing unchangeable personal ignorance with systemic civil rights issues. Surely, we must assume a reactive position upon blatant discrimination – the larger stakes of social equality are too consequential toward all with disabilities in our society to just let slide. However, it’s important to recognizes the clear difference between social injustice and a single individual’s belligerence, where a social injustice effects many, but a single person’s ignorance in most cases doesn’t truly have the power to effect anyone. After all, many people act poorly on a daily basis, but it’s of no consequence to the world at large – that is, a driver honking his horn in traffic might tick someone off in that instant, but it’s of no universal consequence, so we just let it go without a second thought. And, the same holds true when it comes to individuals expressing ignorance or bigotry toward those of us with disabilities – their attitudes are of no final consequence in the world at large, so we shouldn’t concern ourselves with them as individuals or take it personally. Let small-minded people live in their small world while you thrive on your path of success and greatness in the world at large.
For those of us with disabilities, we need to have very deliberate discretion toward how we address ignorance, bigotry, and discrimination by others. We must not waste our energy, emotions, and time on those incapable of understanding – that is, you can’t change or educate someone who clearly demonstrates a lack of capacity, and if you constantly try, you’re wasting the fruits of your own life. If you have a disability, you will occasionally meet people unwilling to accept you. And, when you encounter such circumstances, don’t take it personally or emotionally invest in it – just let it go, and move forward on a positive course.
On the other hand, there are many people who we encounter every day, who simply have never really interacted with someone who has a disability – from bank tellers to children to colleagues – and we should make every effort to reach out to them, demonstrating with our own kindness and patience that those with disabilities are just people, after all. And, they will learn, grow, and reciprocate because of it, where they, too, will make the world a more accepting place for all.
No, not everyone accepts those with disabilities – and it’s important that we recognize that fact. When we encounter profoundly incorrigible bigotry by an individual, let us not get bogged down or dwell, but let us simply move on with our lives toward positive directions. After all, there are many others who may not be familiar with disability, but show a willingness to open up, grow, and accept others, and that’s when we should stop in our tracks and engage the situation toward the positive.
Here’s the golden rule of addressing those of seeming ignorance toward disability: Disregard the hopeless, focus on the hopeful, and your efforts will have the greatest impact.