Sunday, October 03, 1999

Disabled people don't live up to unrealistic expectations




BY DEBORAH KENDRICK
Enquirer contributor

        First impressions build expectations. How many times have I heard about the blind guy someone went to college with or saw at the bar or knew through church who was ever so funny, ever so smart, ever so mean or ever so musical. The implication is, of course, that I — by virtue of our cosmic disability connection — will display a characteristic similar to the one remembered.

        It's human nature, I suppose. The first deaf person I ever knew was an endearing little boy with two big hearing aids and bigger-still heart, who communicated frequently through his Raggedy Andy doll. He was witty, bright and sweet, so I'm not surprised when other deaf people are, too.

        As a camp counselor in college, I made friends with another little boy who used a wheelchair. Randy was wise well beyond his eight or nine years, introspective, and tolerant. So, I suppose, I have placed some similar expectations on the hundreds of wheelchair-using folks who have crossed my path since that long-ago summer.

        It's silly to think that one deaf person will be anything like another, or that one person with multiple sclerosis will react emotionally to the same range of limitations as the next. Still, relearning through life experience what we already know intellectually can be a hard lesson.

Range of personalities
        People with disabilities, being just ordinary mortals, come in every personality type. They are shy, aggressive, comic, tragic, overachievers, and lazy louts. I know this to be true. But sitting in an all-day meeting recently with a few dozen people with disabilities, I found the truth tough to accept.

        In a group allegedly dedicated to the integration and independence of all people with disabilities, I saw struggles of power, ego and pettiness ruling the day. Pomposity and personal insult swirled through the air, while a few calmer voices of reason argued for compromise and forward movement.

        As two people, both using wheelchairs, struggled for the opportunity to be heard, it was the loud, ill-informed, voice of arrogance that was victorious, while a quieter less worldly soul was metaphorically mown down by the other's macho chair.

        Anger and abusive attitudes were palpable in the room, and all of it, preposterously, was flaunted as being for “the good of the cause.” A confrontational stance toward everyone not in one's immediate clique can't possibly be for the good of anyone.

Expected more
        Well, I reminded myself, (leaving early, unable to bear the fruitlessness of effort any longer), this is no different from political power struggles enacted in board rooms all across America on a bad day. This only underscores the fact that people with disabilities are no different — no more noble nor hostile — than their nondisabled peers.

        Even people with disabilities, I told myself, can be obnoxious, insufferable bores. But I expected something better. Recognizing the fact that the expectation was rooted in years of more positive experiences, encounters and friendships with some of the finest human beings on earth — who happen to have disabilities — made it easier to mentally file the debacle under “time wasted.”

        Is it naive to want everyone to behave, display empathy, listen to one another with respect? I'm not sure.

        I am sure, though, that not all participants in the civil rights movement accepted willingly Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of nonviolence. Not all Gandhi's comrades accepted his, either. I'm just wishing we could learn a little more from history.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail: dkendrick@enquirer.com.

       



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