Changing Perspectives

I was fortunate to be invited to the recent White House policy briefing for the bisexual community. Even better, I was able to attend thanks to help and support from a variety of people.  (You know who you are and your help is appreciated.)

While in DC, I stayed with Mike and Tina, friends from high school.  We all trooped off to a

weekly lunch that always follows a faith-based gathering – the equivalent of coffee after church. In general, this collection of individuals is progressive and has a sense of social justice.  Over the years, Mike has told me a great deal about this caring and supportive community where he has invested so much of his time, energy and heart.  I was eager to go forth and meet everyone.

It did not quite work out that way.  I was a part of one conversation, introduced briefly to another person and mostly simply absorbed the vibe.  Oh, yeah, and Camille and I displaced people from their seats not because I asked, but because they decided I needed the seat more and went elsewhere.  (I can’t be sure, but I think the table had empty seats, so I felt a little bit like Typhoid Mary.)   In other words, it was my typical social experience.

Later, I learned this is not the way this group tends to treat new people.  Fortunately, the circumstances present a rare opportunity to hear from someone familiar with the group who can comment upon the ways their behavior strayed from their normal patterns.  Mike, who has helped and supported this blog for years, has been drafted to offer up his observations.  I shall yield the floor to him, but I will reclaim it to discuss one factor I think contributes to the quality of my social experiences, which other events during my DC trip highlighted so glaringly that even the blind person noticed.




…It’s good for the soul, right?

Recently every time I turned around, there seemed to be a person with a cognitive disability. Whether passing on a sidewalk, riding on the same bus or the person helping me in the store, there they were. Everywhere. Over and over.

I am noticeably uncomfortable around people with cognitive disabilities. I never know what to say, do or think. Though not my finest trait, is my own discomfort a parallel experience able to teach me something about TABs?

A useful distinction can be made between my feelings and actions. My unease comes from a complete inability to figure out the person in question. I have absolutely no way of knowing the nature of their disability let alone their functional limitations. This means I don’t know if I should use simple language, speak slowly, ask questions to confirm understanding, repeat myself, or….. You get the idea. I don’t know how to relate and that feeling leads to my get-me-out-of-here impulse.

And, okay, I also have internalized a belief about people with cognitive disabilities behaving unpredictably. It’s not that I would be hurt out of malice or intent. Rather, they might do something that would be fine if I could see but disastrous since I cannot. That increases my unease.

And my actions? I take a deep breath, set my feelings aside and treat the person LIKE what they are — A PERSON. My only unusual behaviors involve word choice and meaningful eye contact. (Believe it or not, you can do meaningful eye contact without working eyes. I can’t explain how, but I’ve recently realized I can instinctively do it.) While I probably don’t manage to entirely hide my feelings, I do my best to minimize them.

Why? I know my reactions are based on stereotypes, misconceptions and ignorance. That is really the only thing distinguishing me from a non-disabled person who behaves sub-optimally around me. I recognize my feelings are not fair, reasonable or appropriate and take steps to remove them from my decision-making about behavior.

I think my point bears repeating in a slightly different way. How you feel does not need to be how you act.

My own vast experience around issues of disability makes it possible for me to understand my own internal reactions. Because most non-disabled people lack such a background, they don’t have a framework to guide them. Can they be given one?

While the bottom line about changing non-disabled people’s attitudes and actions around disability comes down to education and exposure, perhaps the message needs to be different. If my primary motivation starts with a desire to treat the person before me like a person, then maybe non-disabled people need to first be made to recognize our shared humanity. That lesson must simultaneously come with the message that they probably possess little to no accurate information about disability.

Unfortunately, when people feel ignorant, they tend to avoid the situation. I’m not sure how to convey shared humanity, ignorance and a necessity to not run away all at once.