People with Disabilities as Social Outcasts: Shifting the Perspective from Victim to Advocate

My parents could not respect and accept me because I was different. They are still in denial that I have a learning disability.
08/12/2013 12:26 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

How do people perceive and treat individuals with disabilities? Do they treat them with respect or disparagement? What is it like to experience ridicule, shame, disgrace, isolation, and rejection? While not all people do so, some nondisabled people do not empathize with disabled people and the challenges they face. Some feel uncomfortable being a friend to someone who is perceived differently. People who are not exposed to individuals with disabilities often do not realize that a disabled person, despite his or her disability, is just like a nondisabled person. Everyone should ask themselves, what similarities and differences do I have with people who have disabilities? To what extent do people think individuals with disabilities are different? Nobody should be ostracized for something they have no control over. This is an issue I feel passionate about because I have a learning disability and have been a victim of disability discrimination. I have endured so many obstacles, but I am now an advocate for disability rights. Everyone should treat disabled individuals with respect, dignity, and concern.

In their persuasive article, "Which is My Good Leg?: Cultural Communication of Persons with Disabilities," Charles and Dawn Braithwaite point out that people should not make generalizations about people with disabilities. For instance, they say people should not use terms, such as "handicapped" and "slow," for individuals with disabilities. People should not assume a disability defines a person's identity.

In fact, people with disabilities can do some things that nondisabled people cannot do, bringing their experience and focus to key aspects of a task. Individuals with disabilities are able to bring work ethic skills to complete an assignment or project, allowing them to make a contribution to society. For some people, having a disability helps them learn to advocate for themselves. Some might say that being nice to people with disabilities is not necessarily treating them the same as the general population as everybody else. However, disabled people want their community to know who they are.

This is my story. My parents could not respect and accept me because I was different. They are still in denial that I have a learning disability. I was in special education classes in the Prince George's County Public School System (PGCPS) and these experiences showed me the nature of the world in which I must make a stand. Students judged and ridiculed me for having a learning disability. They called me names and asked me strange questions such as, "Did you fall on your head and become retarded?" The students created rumors about my learning disability and referred to me as someone who did not have common sense, who lacked interaction with her environment, and who was an outcast. When I informed my parents about these situations, they told me, "You like to be called retarded," rather than comforting me. They wanted me to be normal and act like other people. I still do not know what the term "normal" means in this context because I could not be the person my parents demanded.

I was misdiagnosed with several different kinds of disabilities since the day I entered the world and on Friday, July 31, 2009, nearly two months after I had graduated from high school, I was professionally diagnosed with Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (NLD/NVLD). It took a long time because the disorder can be confused with Asperger's syndrome; some of the characteristics overlap.

The disorder does not mean I am not verbal. It means I have problems understanding cues in social settings. Also, it causes me to learn life skills more slowly; these include activities such as driving, socializing, and cooking. It is important to note that people with NVLD want to be around people and desire friends. The challenges associated with socializing motivate me to find programs that can help me overcome the disorder. People who have disabilities must be treated with kindness, openness, and respect. They should be accepted for who they are. They are strong individuals who learn differently and can be role models to others. Simply treat others the way they should be treated. People should take the time to stop ridiculing and being awkward when having a conversation with disabled people. They are not a danger to the public.

Educators, policymakers, and business leaders need to come to a consensus. Everyone needs to send a message to nondisabled people: please help enable disabled individuals to be successful and to have opportunities in life, to pursue their passion, and to be happy. Be wise in interactions with disabled people. I am proud of having a disability. I would not change myself for what society would find more comfortable. The lesson here is to accept people with disabilities for who they are.