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Monday, December 15, 2014

Is "Disability" a Bad Word? (Thoughts from ABC's 'What Would You Do?')

When I discovered the show, "What Would You Do?" I was thrilled. I flipped through one YouTube video after another, watching actors portray moral dilemmas in front of bystanding people who did not know that the situation was set up. There were drunk dads about to drive with a van full of kids, seemingly drunk women alone at bars, staged drug-slipping, a theatrical (but eerily realistic) kidnapping and people who seemed to have disabilities that needed help. The idea is to see who would respond out of all of the bystanders and who would speak up or try to help. To change the variables, WWYD changed the gender, race or age of the actors and repeat the skit. It's a very interesting show. It airs on ABC, but episodes can be found on Hulu and YouTube.

One episode that particularly stood out to me was one that involved an actress with a speech impediment that was taking orders at an ice cream shop. Some bystanders were impatient with her delayed speech, although most were very understanding. WWYD planted a few actors to act as impatient/ bullying customers to see how bystanders would react to the rude customer in line. (The roles are flipped a couple of times, with the actress as the customer and vice versa)

At the end of the show, it was revealed that the actress truly did have a speech impediment. However, she wanted to correct anyone who thought she had a disability. "It's just part of life," she said.

I have heard this sentiment a lot. When I read Bethany Hamilton's book "Soul Surfer," she commented that, "I am living proof that there is no such thing as a disability." Although those words are a crass over generalization of what other people experience, Bethany Hamilton did have her arm amputated by a shark and got right back into professional surfing. I'll give her a pass.

I can't judge. I know why people want to eschew the label of "disability." Just look at words like retardation, invalid, (We pronounce it like in-vuh-lid, but just look at the word in print) and handicapped. These words are so often used as an insult in media, and "disabled" is turning in to one of those words that no one wants to use to describe themselves. When we break down the word, "dis-able," the word does start to sting a little bit if it we to be used to generalized to the worth of a person's overall contribution to the world.

However, isn't over generalization the problem in the first place? Someone can't do one thing, so others assume that they can't do anything. I feel like what a person is or is not able to do should not define the value of their lives. Whether or not someone has a disability, there are plenty of things that we can and can not do. Just because I can not run the Pittsburgh marathon doesn't mean I'm a no-good person, and I would be no less of a person if I could not walk a single step. (I suppose this is where the word, "differently abled," arose from; but just give it five years because the mainstream culture will find a way to abuse the term.)

Although most people find a way to rationalize offensive words, (Such as misusing the word, "retarded," "psychotic," "special," etc.) I ask that they consider the impact that they have on people with disabilities. It would be a small change in vocabulary for one person, but for other people it can make a tremendous difference in terms of their workplace or social event feeling like a safe place. Words are not the only way people with disabilities are often alienated, exclusion from important opportunities "because they probably can't participate" is another way people are unintentionally mistreated. It's important to remember that people with differences in ability are painstakingly aware of their limits. If they are invited to something that they can not participate in, they will politely decline just like anyone else.

People often think that, when people with disabilities are alienated, belittled or mocked, the person with the disability is robbed of participating or contributing. This is very true, but this is not the only loss. When people alienate those with disabilities, they are robbing themselves and the community of an individual that has a lot to offer.

I respect anyone who does not want to think of themselves as having a disability, but I think that the intrinsic value of every person needs to be understood. Coming up with a word to replace disability might help, but it will only work if the mainstream culture stops verbally abusing people with different abilities. Ability or the lack of aside, race aside, gender aside, privilege and the lack of it aside... every person is valuable and important exactly as they are.... with whatever label they use to describe themselves


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Before I log off, I would like to leave you with this excerpt from an interview with Special Olympics chairman, Timothy Shriver on NPR.

"Bill Clinton arrived and one of the professional photographers saw a group of Special Olympics athletes and noticed that they'd each had their little single-use cameras that they'd been given and they were trying to get a picture of the president, only they all had their cameras backwards. And he said to them, you know, you have to turn your camera around and then you look through the viewfinder and you click the button and you'll get a picture of the president way up high and the athlete, one of them turned to him and said, oh thank you so much, he said, but if you look through the viewfinder backwards it works just like binoculars and you can see the president perfectly clearly."

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