By Mark E. Smith
At some point – maybe 15 or 20 years ago – the meaning of disabled became blurred to me as I began recognizing the seemingly unlimited potentials in my life. And, in more recent years, the meaning has become all but moot to me, merely definitions in medical books, as I’ve widely witnessed the truly unlimited potential in others’ lives, those who have achieved enormous success in every facet, regardless of disability.
Sure, if I put myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know anyone with a “severe disability,” I understand that his or her perception of disability – or, lack thereof – is pretty grim, with stereotypes of our living limited lives in countless ways, full of dependencies on others, from our families to the government.
And, while these stereotypes may hold true for some with disabilities based on any number of circumstances, there’s a fascinating segment of individuals with “severe disabilities” where limitations and dependencies aren’t the case at all – that is, where disability isn’t disability, where beyond a medical diagnosis, the scorecard of one’s life simply transcends what one might define as disabled, entering the realm of even exceeding the mainstream’s definitions of success.
While many credit the ADA in 1990 as a social door-opener for those with disabilities, it was truly 1970s legislation and that era’s independent living movement in the U.S. that created a generation – born between 1965 and 1975 with “severe disabilities” – who came into a society of every-increasing opportunities, and were encouraged by the spirit of the 1980s and 1990s to fully use every resource they could access. Therefore, we’re now seeing many between the ages of 35 and 45 – born with “severe disabilities” – living such successful lives that it truly questions the common wisdom of what it means to be “disabled.” When we look at the demographics of this generation (a notably small group compared to the overall disability population), it’s statistically distinguished from younger and older generations of those with disabilities based on education level, employment success, wealth-building, physical independence, social status, community involvement, and committed relationships. Indeed, you might say there’s a new generation of young, upwardly-mobile professionals (yuppies) – and they have disabilities.
An example is a family I know who’s truly living the American dream – custom home, pool, luxury cars, children attending a private school, vacation home, easily pulling in a 6-figure income. Oh, and the husband has very severe cerebral palsy. Because of the sensitivity of his position, I can’t tell you his job, but he’s high-up in a certain branch of the government. I recently jokingly asked his wife what she saw in a schmuck like him, and to my surprise, she gave me a candid answer: “I wanted a perfect 10. All my friends were willing to settle; but, I knew I wanted it all,” she told me. “He had to be smart, worldly, a great listener, respected by all, a hard-worker, a great father, and someone who was secure enough to support my dreams, too. And, I found it all in him, my perfect 10.”
Her ability to look at the complete picture of her husband, not his medical diagnosis, is such a profound insight – and it’s the same insight that’s defining this generation that’s arguably transcending “disability.” Put simply, this generation of those with disabilities isn’t dwelling on “disability,” but looking at the whole of life, where limitations are replaced by abilities, where dependency is replaced by independence. And, the results are astounding, where many with severe disabilities haven’t just beat all of the grim statistics of those with disabilities living in America – as in lower rates of education and higher rates of unemployment and poverty – but actually exceed the mainstream when it comes to education, income, and social mobility.
Interestingly, beyond a visibility to friends on social networks like Facebook, this generation generally avoids the limelight, not partaking in inspirational stories on television or boasting of their accomplishments in public venues. Instead, there’s a quiet humility to their successes, where they are the families next door. They demonstrate that they’re not out to prove anything to anyone, but that they’re simply living their best because it’s the right way to live, regardless of disability.
The question, however, remains: How has this generation reached the higher rungs of status and economics with inherently severe disabilities?
Again, the answer includes a combination of timing and mindset. The 1970s cracked the door of opportunity for those with disabilities, and this generation burst it wide open, seizing every opportunity in sight. Disability wasn’t seen as an obstacle, but just a trait, where all other abilities, talents, and opportunities superseded it. As one of my buddies put it, ”I wasn’t worried in the least about my spina bifida in college – I was focused on building a career.”
And, it’s a mindset that we all can learn from: Disability doesn’t have to be a defining state or ultimately limiting condition, but, in many ways, just a label – a label we can choose not to represent who we are. That is, we can have a disability, but not be “disabled” by it. As another friend of mine put it, “Why would I choose to be disabled when, with some effort, I can be educated, employed, wealthy, and in love – and then just have disability as a sidebar to it all?”