By Mark E. Smith
It’s intriguing – and bizarre – how some within the disability community are appalled by the concept of “disability awareness programs,” going as far as to belittle their peers with disabilities striving to raise the public’s understanding toward living with disability. There are even groups with disabilities who literally protest others with disabilities for engaging in disability awareness programs.
Now, you may be logically wondering why some with disabilities would criticize and protest others with disabilities for striving to raise awareness? After all, doesn’t disability awareness benefit everyone, including both those with and without disabilities?
Of course it does; but, let me explain the critics’ argument because their position has some merit – that is, until we analyze the entire picture.
I agree whole heartedly with the critics that I cannot teach anyone what it’s like to be me – that is, one with a severe disability. Through the various disability awareness programs that I’m involved in, I can express to non-disabled individuals a bit of what it’s like to have a severe disability, but they can’t possibly understand the true day-in, day-out physical, emotional, mental, and social impacts that living with a disability entails. And, this fact holds true for any of our understandings of other groups beyond which we belong. For example, I know of the struggles that many who are gay can face because I’ve been made aware of the issues through reading, hearing, and meeting those educating others and raising awareness on the topic. However, as a straight man, I truly have no idea what it’s like to be gay in America, as everyone has always supported the fact that I’m heterosexual – that is, I know of the struggles that one can face being gay, but I can never really know what it’s like to literally be gay since I’m straight, and my sexual preference has never been questioned or condemned by anyone.
It’s this issue – that we can’t literally teach others what it’s like to be us – that the critics argue makes disability awareness programs unsuccessful. However, the critics take it one notch further – they actually think that disability awareness programs diminish others’ views of living with disability, making our lives appear as frivolous. After all, they argue, if you place an able-bodied kid in a wheelchair, they turn it into fun – and there’s nothing fun about living with a disability. According to the critics, then, disability awareness programs are nothing more than a mockery of disability experience, a modern-day freak show for others’ entertainment.
However, where the critics wholly miss the target is that disability awareness programs aren’t about making strangers “disabled”; rather, disability awareness programs are simply about increasing awareness. The fact is, as disability educators, we can’t literally make able-bodied people disabled, and, therefore, of course they’ll never understand the whole experience. However, what we can do is raise their awareness of disability in general, in engaging ways, through exposure to those with disabilities – and that, in itself, is of vital importance. See, as humans, we fear the unknown, and when it comes to understanding others who are diverse from us, the unknown breeds apprehension, ignorance, and stereotyping – none of which we wish directed at those of us with disabilities. The only way to overcome this is through making others aware, even in the smallest of ways, that people with disabilities are simply people, too. And, it works, where an able-bodied person’s positive experience in learning about disability almost always remains with them as they go out into the world. Sure, having able-bodied kids play wheelchair basketball as a disability awareness lesson seems frivolous compared to our actually living with disability; however, the process allows the children to intrinsically build a better comfort level, seeing a wheelchair not as an unfamiliar, frightening device, but just as a wheelchair – and, as a result, they’re more likely to see people who use wheelchairs in a more accepting light. It’s just common sense: Awareness helps create understanding.
All of this brings us back to the original, logical question of, why would some with disabilities criticize others’ efforts to increase disability awareness, especially since it serves everyone in such positive ways?
Because, in many ways, such anti-awareness individuals misguide themselves toward self-defeating hypocricy. They claim to want social equality, but they refuse to interact in positive lights with others or make any effort to improve societal views for the better – instead, their irrational protesting of awareness programs makes them look as detached extremests, actually harming how others’ view of those with disabilities. And, we have to ask, what does such divisive behavior gain for any of us?
The answer is, nothing. In fact, it sets us back. If a city holds a disability awareness day, and individuals with disabilities protest it, the average person watching this play out on the evening news rightly asks, What the heck is wrong with these people – they’re protesting themselves? When you break down the subject of people with disabilities protesting disability awareness efforts at any level, it’s strikingly irrational – hypothetically like cancer survivors protesting cancer awareness efforts.
Of course, I realize that we can’t change the opinion of someone with a disability who’s extreme enough in his or her views that he or she criticizes or protests disability awareness. However, it is regretful that such individuals strive to defeat others’ good efforts, especially since we know that disability awareness programs work. In my own case, I’ve seen the positive effects first-hand that disability awareness programs bring in my working with thousands of Boy Scouts this past summer. Among the most touching results that I’ve witnessed is that I’m currently involved with several Eagle Scout candidates around the country who, based on going through the disability awareness program, switched their Eagle Scout projects toward efforts that serve the disability community – that’s a very real impact. Indeed, as I’ve witnessed time after time, it’s through disability awareness that individuals see less of a disability and more of a person in the end – and such powerful results should be fostered and pursued, not criticized and protested.
Come to think of it, maybe the critics with disabilities who don’t understand the importance of disability awareness programs need to attend a sort of disability awareness program of their own, where they learn that it’s not the wisest effort to protest oneself.