“Based on my interactions with you during the past few weeks, I have no doubt that you are a very nice person. However, after thinking about our conversation a few days ago, I don’t think I can go out with you. If you want me to be blunt, it’s because you are blind. For one, I enjoy car racing, and two, I enjoy going ziplining, and I don’t think you are capable of doing either of these.”
These are the words that were said to me by a dear friend in 2018. Do you think I should feel sad, perplexed, or angry? How would you feel? Well, I said to myself, “This is sad – not because the words were directed towards me, but because of the way society in general views individuals with a noticeable condition.” I don’t believe that my friend’s words necessarily characterize her as a bad person or insensitive. Perhaps she was brave in saying that directly to me, as opposed to applying the philosophy of being politically correct by hiding the truth of society’s perception of what a person who is blind can or can’t accomplish.
This experience is a vivid indication that, despite multiple laws on the books that try to bridge the inequality gap for those who live with a noticeable condition in the United States, many people’s behavior is informed by an implicit bias which leads to the marginalization of that population. Although most are afraid to overtly acknowledge their bias for fear of appearing rude or offending someone, they may automatically assume that a person with a disability cannot maintain a level of competitiveness in social activities or intellectual stimulation, or worry that their peer group may reject them.
This reaction is not universal among all people; nevertheless, one should pause and ask why stigma against individuals with disabilities so commonly provokes such a reaction.
In order to find a possible explanation, it is vital to travel back to the beginning of America to paint a more complete picture of how people with disabilities have been treated throughout the nation’s history. According to an article that was posted on the ADA’s website to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the law, during colonial times, family members were the only ones responsible for caring for relatives with disabilities. Consequently, some families used to “hide or disown their disabled members or allow them to die” (“ADA – Findings, Purpose, and History”).
Around the 1820s, institutionalization or “warehousing” of those with disabilities started to become more widespread. These institutions were not designed to enhance the ability of individuals with noticeable conditions to gain independence and productivity, but instead served as a form of imprisonment and isolation which further prevented their interaction with the rest of society. People who ended up in such circumstances, moreover, commonly suffered from abuse and neglect rather than receiving the protective care that was stated as the ultimate goal.
This brief historical context parallels, in crucial ways, other forms of institutionalized inequality that have placed certain subsets of the American population at a lasting disadvantage. Ultimately laws on the books can bring some changes, but true change requires deeper soul-searching by members of society so that we might individually examine and address the roots of our prejudices. As humans, any of us at any time is susceptible to experiencing a disability, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional; therefore we should not operate under the assumption that having a disability implies that a person is fundamentally inferior.
Referring back to the anecdote I related at the beginning of this post, I promised my friend that we would remain close while acknowledging that she should have a boyfriend who could take her ziplining and car racing. What she did not know, however, was that ziplining is one of my favorite outdoor activities. A few months after that conversation, I invited her to join me on a particularly strenuous ziplining course. To reach the platform, we had to climb five sets of increasingly difficult obstacles, which I managed with no issue. She eventually had to give up, and it was there that she discovered not to judge a book by its cover.
While I will acknowledge that living with a disability comes with some challenges, it does not preclude a person from sharing interests and skills with others who do not have the same condition. Often, instead of inhibiting the development of skills, it allows people like us to become more creative so that we can adapt to the settings where we find ourselves.
Posted By Wilson Charles
Posted Jul 14th, 2020