What's Wrong With Whom?

What is it about persons with disabilities that makes the rest of us so nervous? For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt initial discomfort when seeing or meeting a person with a disability. This is ironic, to say the least: my own mother got polio and she has consequently walked with a limp throughout most of her 72 years. Yet, growing up, I didn’t see her as a person with disabilities: like any other child, as long as she fed, clothed, and hugged me, she was functional enough.

Others were different, however. One of the earliest memories I have was of regularly seeing the blind man at Tampa’s Central Post Office, circa 1957, who ran the concession stand. I was able to marvel at how he could make change by the sense of touch, how he remembered me by my voice alone, and how he and my father, as native Floridians, were warm and friendly with each other. Still, I dreaded seeing that shopkeeper and I hid behind my father when I saw him. Even at the age of 10, I kept my distance; I was only courteous enough not to be rude and get in trouble with my dad.

The first time I met Michael Cohn was at my own wedding; my wife Laura and Michael are first cousins. When I saw Michael, I was discomforted by the contortions of his face, his entrapment in a wheelchair, and his speaking difficulties, all effects of the genetic illness he has. To be sure, my feelings of discomfort have greatly lessened over time, and I’ve learned to see what Michael and I have in common­for example, a warped sense of humor. Be that as it may, I still feel myself get tense when he phones, and, even after seven years, I’m still embarrassed to ask him to repeat words or sentences. (Michael, for his part, doesn’t seem to mind much at all). In short, I wonder how much I’ve changed from being that scared little boy in the post office.

What is going on with me? More to the point, what’s going on with so many of us, for I bet that the majority of “normal” Americans have had similar reactions and experiences in interacting with persons with disabilities. I think there are a number of reasons so many of us feel uncomfortable;

I’m Number One: We are a particularly individualistic culture, and we live in a nation where realizing the “American Dream” means being successful on one’s own. (Just think of the lines of our own success songs: “I Did it My Way”, “If I Can Make it There, I’ll Make it Anywhere”, “I Am Strong, I Am Invincible, I Am Woman”. I, I, I; not a group or support system in the bunch).

So, if we buy this cultural paradigm, then in order to have the best chance of “succeeding” in our culture, each of us needs all of our equipment; our physical, mental, and psychological abilities. When we see someone with disabilities, we are reminded about how vulnerable we are, how little control we really have. When we first meet a person with disabilities, many of us think, “There but for the grace of God go I”. However, when you think about it, that is just another way of saying, “Thank God it is that person, and not me”, which is not only a selfish thought, but an individualistic thought as well.

1. Them, not us: The flip side of our individualism is that, when we do think about our membership in groups in terms of concentric circles; we may see ourselves first as a member of a circle that involves our family and friends; then, perhaps, as a member of a particular ethnic or religious group; then as part of a larger circle of people in our town or state; then as a citizen of our country; and, finally as a member of the human race, a citizen of the world. In this system, our allegiance to those in the “inner circles” supercedes our interest in other people who occupy the “more distant” circles. So, when we meet someone who “isn’t like us,” we subconsciously, or even blatantly, relegate him or her to the more distant circles. In its uglier aspects such a classification system can lead to prejudice or intolerance of “the other,” and that “other” may well be a person with a disability.

2. The bold and the beautiful: In our country, almost any advertisement, any beauty magazine, or any popular movie emphasizes beauty, strength, sexuality, and youth. Disabilities, like aging, remind us on some level that life is finite, that life is provisional, and that life can change. That realization terrifies us.

In the end, of course, it is we, the “abled,” who are missing out by retreating or being fearful of persons with disabilities; we are losing the opportunity to make new friends, to learn from new business colleagues, and to understand another way of living a full, and fulfilling life. I am optimistic, though: I like to think that insight can be the beginning of change, and that by facing your fears you can overcome them. In this way, by trying to understand my attitudes and change my behaviors, I, too, can try to change my entrenched behaviors. I, too, can deal with my disability.