As part of my job, I attend a lot of conferences and presentations. One of the presentations I attended recently featured a whole myriad of people who had their opportunity to dazzle us at the podium. (Maybe “dazzle” is a lofty goal for a continuing education course. The goal was probably to keep us awake and not misspeak!) One of those speakers was a man I’ll call Clark. Clark entered side-stage via the ramp and rolled up in his wheelchair. He spoke slowly and with some difficulty. Clark’s presentation was on point and provided as much content and insight as the rest. It was no better than the one before it and no worse than the one that followed. It was average. Yet, when Clark uttered his final sentence something happened in the audience. Almost in slow motion, I noticed audience members begin to rise to their feet. One lead. Another followed. And another and another until half the room, hundreds of people, were on their feet, grinning and fervently applauding. “Oh no!,” I thought. I started mumbling under my breath, “No, no! Sit down! What are you doing?!” I wanted to pull each one of them by the back of their jackets to sit them back down. I was embarrassed for them, and I felt bad for Clark.
Maybe you think I’m a little crazy right now….downright MEAN, even, to think that a person with a disability shouldn’t get a standing ovation. That’s not what I’m saying. I want true acceptance. And what happened in that audience, folks, that wasn’t it.
I have no doubt that everyone in that audience truly, with their heart, intended to praise Clark. They wanted to boost him up, to let him know he was accepted, and welcome, to celebrate his life and his ability to keep going despite all the obstacles. But to me, sitting in that room, Clark didn’t give a standing-ovation-worthy performance, and the audience response looked a lot like well-intentioned pity. It felt like the audience saw Clark’s disability first, as his defining quality, not a mere part of who he is. It felt like, although they were really trying to be supportive, they were casting judgment on him. They had assumed that a person with his disabilities couldn’t do what he just did, and they were pleasantly surprised. Because if they had walked into that presentation with no prejudgments, they would have applauded, from their chairs, as they did for every other presenter who didn’t have a disability. That right there is what made me sad for the journey that lies ahead.
Society has come a long, LONG way toward inclusion and acceptance. We see more physical disabilities represented in advertisements, as characters on television, and in schools. All of these things are FANTASTIC!! But we have a long way to go toward TRUE inclusion and TRUE acceptance. I think the first step in getting there is for everyone to raise our expectations!
Have you ever received kudos at work for a project someone else did? I mean, your name might’ve been on it, but your partner did 90% of the work and actually came up with the idea, to begin with. Praise for that doesn’t feel good, does it? Because we didn’t deserve it. It doesn’t elevate your self-esteem. It doesn’t feel earned. My understanding from loving people with cancer, advocating for people with developmental disabilities, and raising one, is that people with physical disabilities want what we all want, genuine praise—only WHEN they deserve it. JUST LIKE THE REST OF US. If praise is handed out like a participation trophy, how can any recipient recognize and appreciate GENUINE praise for a job well done? How does the recipient gain self-confidence? When will the recipient truly feel accepted for who he is and the person he strives to be, instead of being praised for carrying a disability he was born with or one that was thrust upon him without choice?
People, let’s raise our expectations of others’ abilities. Let’s expect that a person who uses a wheelchair or who does not have a voice is just as capable as anyone without a disability. Let’s be unfazed when a person who walks differently or lacks sight is a presenter or a cashier or a doctor or a therapist.
In my dream world, people see the person, not the disability. And people understand that having a disability thrust upon a person doesn’t inherently make a person “special” or ”inspiring.” Sometimes that person is not a good baseball player. Sometimes that person is not a good writer. Sometimes that person is an outright ***hole (I was censored :-)). Because not every person with a disability is amazing and inspiring and deserving of an ovation. We are all unique and beautiful in our own ways. But most of us, by definition, are average. In my dream world, it’s okay to recognize that. Let’s raise our expectations!