By Billy Pickens, Intern
As a senior in college, I have had the pleasure of taking many classes in which I received a great deal of powerful information. One thing that made every college class worthwhile was the fact that, no matter how important I felt each class was, I still learned a valuable lesson that would leave a lasting impact on my life. Some of these lessons were immediately recognizable. However, there were some that did not occur to me as extremely valuable until I really thought about them.
One specific example of the latter was a lecture given by my General Psychology professor. In this lecture, we were discussing the history of mental illness in America and how it has been dealt with over time. My professor made the point that prior to scientific research and progressive movements within the disability community, those with disabilities were often seen as useless or less than human. Many were seen as being under the spell of a demon and therefore were locked away, abused or even killed simply because they did not live up to the standard of what was considered “normal.”
While I found this history both riveting and disheartening, it was a story I had heard too many times before as a person with a disability. For that reason, at first I did not see it as anything inspiring or thought-provoking. It was not until I began serving on the Student Advisory Board for my school’s Disability Services that these stories gained more impact and became more important to me.
As a student advisor, one of my tasks is to go into classrooms throughout my school and talk to students about how I have managed to live a normal, productive life despite my disability. My peers and I share stories of how we had been underestimated, written off and treated unfairly by many who had negative perceptions of persons with disabilities. It was through our stories, and students saying that our testimonies really changed their own perspectives, that I was reminded of my professor’s lecture.
I began thinking more about my own journey and how I found myself in college striving for employment, yet many of my friends with my disability are still relying heavily on the support systems around them. While pondering the perceptions of the world and the history of disability culture, I came to the conclusion that one of the key reasons why many with disabilities struggle to flourish in today’s society is society’s attempt to change a person’s disability instead of adapting to it. However, I believe that this is not so much the fault of society in general, but the support system of the person with a disability.
From the time I was born, my parents were prepared for the possibility that I would be totally blind with gradual hearing loss. There had been a slight hope that maybe I would be born completely normal. However, being that my condition was genetic and the chance of me inheriting the gene was extremely high, my parents knew that this was highly unlikely. Even so, I was raised normally, participated in activities relevant to my age group and attended public school.
There was always the lingering conversation of restoring my sight. I remember from a young age attending conferences centered around vision restoration. While I willingly agreed to attend these conferences with my parents, restoring my sight was hardly ever a desire of mine. What is the point? I am achieving my goals despite my blindness and have no time to focus on changing it.
I say this to say that if you are a person who has a disability or are associated with someone who has a disability, the last thing you should do to help that person is try to cure them of that disability. I am not saying that if the opportunity to cure someone of a disability arises you should not benefit from it. However, you should focus more on adapting to the present situation than trying to find a cure. In my opinion, this is the most important characteristic of someone who overcomes obstacles and turns perception into progression.
We have come so far as a culture in awareness of our value to society. We are showing the world each day that we can break down barriers, and do it with our disability. People like Helen Keller, Louis Braille and others were not respected just because of their disability, but because of what they chose to do with that disability. Those who embrace their disabilities and use them as motivation instead of defeat will have the main ingredient in conquering any obstacle that comes their way. Likewise, people who support those with disabilities may experience a shift in their own perspective when they focus more energy on teaching skills to successfully adapt to the environment. Through this approach, they will see how obstacles are conquered and real progress is made.