By Mark E. Smith
Isn’t it pecular how people – including those of us with disabilities, ourselves – take specific character traits and somehow universally attribute them to those with disabilities? I read someone note that those with disabilities are too introverted in public. It struck me as an interesting observation directed specifically at those with disabilities – namely because many people without disabilities are likewise introverted in public. If you people-watch at Wal-Mart, or an airport, or a college class, or any public place, almost everyone in public is introverted – it’s a cultural norm in many regions. It’s not a disability thing; it’s merely a people thing.
Along these lines of conjuring that there are specific traits to most with disabilities, a friend confided in me that one of her employees with a disability wasn’t coming to work on time, and repeatedly called off work during bad weather and beyond – liberties that no other employees had. Knowing that I never miss work and don’t make an issue of my disability, she came to me for advice, wondering how she should handle the situation, finally confiding in me that what she really wondered was if this behavior was common to those with disabilities?
I explained to her that, as a manager, she had an obligation to take disability out of the equation, and see the employee based on the real issue: The person was just a bad employee, and disability had nothing to do with it. I said, “Look, this isn’t a disability thing, it’s a people thing. Some employees with disabilities are terrific, while others are terrible – but disability, in itself, has nothing to do with one’s work ethic. A bad employee is a bad employee, and disability isn’t part of the equation.”
To yet another extreme, I had a college professor once tell me how impressed she was with every student with a disability, that they were all brilliant, that she wished all of her students were like those with disabilities. I candidly noted, “You’ve just managed to miss out on the dumb ones with disabilities – there are lots of us, and I may be the first to prove that, ruining your track record.”
These three anecdotes point to an important truth: Character traits are about individual people, not disability. It’s strikingly obvious that those with disabilities are as diverse as everyone else – because those with disabilities are everyone else. Yet, some people don’t seem to catch on so quickly that people with disabilities are just people, after all.
See, what some miss – including some with disabilities, themselves – is the fact that there’s nothing inherent to the physicality of disability that standardizes one’s humanity. Everyone on this planet – and certainly within a cultural melting pot like the United States – is diverse, with individual traits – and disability doesn’t change that. Geniuses are geniuses, shy people are shy people, hard workers are hard workers, jerks are jerks, and it’s all totally regardless of disability. Nevertheless, where some get hung up is in presuming that disability effects all with disabilities in the same ways – it’s called stereotyping.
Interestingly, the stereotyping of those with disabilities comes from the root of all stereotyping – that is, a lack of diverse experience with others. When we know very few with disabilities – and some reading this only intimately know themselves as one with a disability – we use that very limited experience to cast a wide net, incorrectly presuming that all with disabilities are strikingly the same as what we’ve learned in our limited experience. However, when we’re fortunate enough to know many with disabilities – from rock-n-rollers to recluses, from scholars to strippers – we realize that those of us with disabilities are as diverse as everyone else, where individual character traits are just that, individual.
A large part of my career is based upon addressing disability experience through writing and speaking. Yet, I truly don’t address the challenges of disability, specifically; rather, I address the challenges of life. When I note one of my signature lines, stop blaming the dealer, and play the cards you’ve been dealt, it applies so well to disability experience, but it’s strikingly universal toward all adversities in life, isn’t it? Again, disability experience is truly human experience, and when we recognize that, we remove any stereotypes, seeing all people as just that – people.
The next time that you find yourself applying specific character traits to those with disabilities, or witness others engaging in it, stop the trend in its tracks, and say, Wait a minute, this isn’t a disability thing, it’s a people thing! – and appreciate the diversity of each individual’s character traits, good and bad, where people with disabilities are simply people, after all.