Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.
I don't know why people make such a big deal out of people with disabilities. The problem lies in how people think about disability. First, most of us think of disability rather narrowly, for instance, when someone is missing a limb, paralyzed and in a wheelchair, or blind. Basically, any condition that is obvious and limits people from doing things that so-called normal people can do.
Second, people tend to think of disability as dichotomous; meaning you have it or you don't. But I see disability as lying along a continuum; it's a matter of degree, not kind. Though we don't think of it this way very often, it's possible to be a little disabled, somewhat disabled, or severely disabled, depending on how much the physical challenge prevents someone from engaging in the laundry list of what we consider to be so-called normal activities, from talking, hearing, and seeing to walking, eating, and having sex.
The fact is we're all disabled in one way or another. Let's break down the word disabled. It means 'not able.' Well, gosh, I'm not able to do a lot of things. I'm not able to dunk a basketball. I'm not able to do open-heart surgery. I have a truly terrible singing voice. Does that make me disabled? Of course not, because I'm able to function perfectly well in most aspects of life.
Many people who are labeled as disabled can also lead predominantly normal lives. They work, marry, have children, play sports, the list goes on. Admittedly, there are some who have suffered egregious physical insults that truly incapacitate them, but even many of them are able to lead productive and fulfilling lives (e.g., Stephen Hawking).
And think about it. There are far more things that most people with disabilities can do than not do, making them pretty darned ordinary, in other words, just like the rest of us.
Why should what they are not able to do define how others view them, namely, as disabled, when, based on my experience with people with disabilities, they don't define themselves that way? What they are not able to do shouldn't determine how others look at them any more than my not being able to sing well should influence how people see me.
Realistically, it's not surprising for people to develop certain perceptions about people with disabilities. We naturally make judgments based on information that is most readily available. And their disabilities are most obvious, whereas it isn't always clear all of the abilities they possess, such as incisive thinking, a sense of humor or compassion. I've found that, once I spent time with people with disabilities, their disabilities faded into the background as who they were and what they were capable of, unbound from their disabilities, became more evident. People with disabilities became just people.
We also have a tendency to idolize people with disabilities, to see them as courageous and as inspirations for all of us. We marvel at how they overcome their disabilities to compete in marathons, get college degrees, or establish successful careers. We think they are somehow special and we want to learn how they have coped with their difficult lives in the hope that we can use those lessons to overcome the comparatively minor challenges we face in our own lives.
But the people I know with disabilities don't think of themselves as different or special. Remember that, at some point in their lives (unless they were born physically challenged), they weren't different or special, they were just normal, just like the rest of us. They don't possess special qualities, for example, resilience or a positive attitude, that we lack.
What changed were their circumstances, namely, the physical challenges that changed their life. The attributes that emerged that enabled them to overcome their disabilities weren't unique to them. Instead, their reactions that we consider superhuman are, in fact, decidedly human and reside in all of us. Though we may think that we would crawl up into a ball and surrender when faced with similar challenges, most of us would probably react with the same courage and determination. That is the real lesson that so-called normal people can learn from those who are disabled.
So, next time you meet a person with disabilities, try two things with them. First, rather than paying attention to their disabilities, find out what their abilities are and learn how they define themselves. Second, don't treat them as if they are disabled. Instead, treat them as if they are normal. You know why? Because they are far more normal than you think.
And, more importantly, they want to be viewed and treated based not on their disability, that is, one small aspect of who they are (however noticeable and intrusive the disability may be), but rather on all of their abilities and on the totality of who they are.
We want to know what you think. Join the discussion by posting a comment below or tweeting #TEDWeekends. Interested in blogging for a future edition of TED Weekends? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.