Today “boys” and “girls” we will begin with a story. Once upon a time, Jen took a shower and put on clothes that made her feel sexy, then headed off to a party with a friend. Upon arrival, the friend introduced her to the hosts and Jen presented a plate of cookies. Because the friend did not know anyone else in the room, there were no other introductions to be made. Jen hung out with her friend for a time, then told her she was under no obligation to be by her side all evening, so the friend moved off. Sitting on a comfortable couch, Jen drank her water and listened to the animated conversation all around. When somebody sat next to her, she smiled and said hello, but nothing came of it. From time to time, the friend came over to make certain Jen had what she needed and at the end of the night, they went home, the friend having thoroughly enjoyed herself.
Here are my two questions: did the people at the party demonstrate acceptance of Jen? Was Jen treated reasonably by these strangers? The reality is that nobody did anything wrong and yet it was not how I, at any rate, want the world to be.
Recently I read somebody’s wish for 2010. “People will understand children with disabilities do not have a disease; children with disabilities are not looking for a cure but ACCEPTANCE.” While I agree completely with the sentiment, my heart yearns for something that reaches beyond a solitary person isolated within a crowd.
Let me tell you another story. Jen bakes some of her killer chocolate cupcakes, puts on a cute outfit, and goes to a potluck with a friend. Upon entering, she is introduced to the crowd in the kitchen and offered a chair, which she accepts. The person beside her begins to engage her in conversation that goes on for a time, until he’s distracted by food preparations. Turning to another cluster of talking people, Jen listens until something she does indicates her interest and the group grows to encompass her. The night passes with talking, laughing, and both Jen and her friend go home having thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
The contrast between the two stories is obvious, whereas the reasons for the difference are elusive. There are no striking differences in education, political bent, socio-economic status, or gender balance. While the baked goodies varied, the cupcakes can’t be that spectacular. Clearly, in both groups I was accepted, but only in one was I included.
Age was the only factor varying between groups, with the potluckers all under 33 years old, and the partygoers above that age. At first glance there is no obvious connection between behavior around disabled people and years spent on this planet. But if you know something of the history of special education, it makes more sense. Starting in 1977, public schools were required by law to educate disabled children in the “least restrictive environment.” As this policy took root, disabled children’s presence in the regular classroom became more commonplace. Non-disabled children educated alongside their disabled peers gained a familiarity with disability that older generations lack. Such exposure breeds an ease around disabled people not readily achievable in other ways.
It may be that the media has been a force for constructive social change. With positive images of disability becoming increasingly pervasive, the younger generations have been exposed to more accurate portrayals of disabled people during their formative years. Maybe the potluckers had a different mental context through which they perceived me.
At a fundamental level, neither age nor media exposure are adequate explanations for ease around disabled people, and even being “at ease” around the disabled does not necessarily mean immediate inclusion. My pet theory is all about the subconscious. Without even realizing it, people see somebody like me and discard me as potential friend, date, or even interesting conversationalist. Simply put, it doesn’t dawn on people to even approach me. I believe that familiarity with and exposure to positive images of disability have shaped subconscious processes in younger people making them more likely to view me as a person. After that, conscious choices play a role, but that is for another day.
My dream is to have a world where I am not just accepted but also included. I only hope a generosity of spirit amongst humans becomes more rather than less commonplace. Including a disabled person doesn’t need to be about pity, being nice to the disabled person, or what a good human being does. It can simply be making an effort to overcome subconscious processes with conscious choice.