Disability affects all of us.
61 million, 26%, or 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. live with disabilities. So, it’s a good bet we either are, or know someone who is. Half are due to mobility issues. The rest are cognitive, hearing, vision, or the ability to carry out daily tasks like dressing, running errands, or bathing on their own.
According to the World Health Organization, worldwide 1 in 7 or 1.2 billion people are disabled. Under the age of 60 this is predominantly due to depression, hearing and vision issues.
Yet this very population has provided us with some of the most amazing and influential people. Many believe Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Mozart and Marie Curie had Asperger’s. Or Helen Keller, Stevie Wonder, Itzhak Perlman, Steven Hawkins, whose obvious physical disabilities didn’t keep them from attaining great heights. Where it was once hidden and protected at all costs, as in the case of one of the most impactful presidents in our history, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in many cases it’s now openly shared to encourage others to embrace and see beyond their own issues. As FDR famously said,
“Men are not prisoners of fate, but prisoners of their own minds.”
Like anything else in life, success doesn’t come from focusing on what you don’t have, but rather, overcoming whatever obstacles exist and succeeding in spite of those challenges. Those who achieved great heights didn’t see their disabilities as insurmountable. Instead, it spurred them to greater heights.
Many people aren’t officially disabled but still have concerns that create daily challenges e.g. chronic diseases, whether mental or physical. Those without support, fighting to survive or raise children.
My uncle had diabetes so brittle it required a vigilant schedule of insulin injections every day. He once told me it made him organized and efficient, giving him the skills needed to head his own law firm. Sadly, my aunt was so embarrassed by her need to take insulin regularly she ignored her own life determining needs and died in her thirties, a few months before I was born.
I’m concerned the word “ disabled” creates a vision that makes discussing this topic difficult. One person told me she immediately equates the word with disability benefits and not working. For others it is how the disabled are perceived- as invalids unable to function at all. Both assumptions immediately negate and diminish the incredible contributions they give to their communities, families and friends. A close friend’s brother is a quadriplegic. Yet he works every day in the small store he’s owned for decades, offering sundries to the neighborhood. Or his wife, who’s been battling stage 4 cancer for years, standing by his side. There are too many examples to name but disabled does not mean incapable. The way we represent the significant portion of our population who are disabled must change.
That doesn’t mean we stop acknowledging their challenges and continue to champion equal rights, especially under the law as was seen when the anti-discrimination bill was passed in 1964-
“Under the law it is illegal to discriminate against someone (applicant or employee) because of that person’s race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It is also illegal to retaliate against a person because he or she complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.”
It was amended in 1973 to include those specifically with disabilities to force accommodations such as wheelchair ramps, widened hallways, guard rails, elevated toilets, and larger bathrooms. Think about it. Before this only those affected considered how hard it was to get into a facility, use the amenities or traverse a hallway. Removing barriers to honor routine human functions is a start. Treating everyone with the respect they deserve shouldn’t require a law.
How we see ourselves is paramount. Accepting our unique needs and defining exactly how they affect our lives is key. But so is changing how others view them. There used to be limits on those without a limb, until you see the remarkable athletes who have excelled despite their absence. Or how a young person with Asperger’s, Greta Thunberg, can change the world’s perspectives on climate change. How the rhythmic movements of Parkinson’s are no longer the only thing we notice when watching Michael J. Fox. Or Steven Hawkin’s wheelchair when he speaks through his digital enhancer.
Many believe these unique individuals excelled only because they have money or fame. And clearly both add tremendous value in making a disability less intrusive. But believing everyone else is looking for a free ride isn’t just wrong, it’s inaccurate. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a wheelchair, without a limb, or the ability to see or hear, struggling to survive or accomplish simple tasks we take for granted. But when at least a quarter of our population has a disability it’s impossible to know how many of our co-workers, neighbors, teachers, providers, mail deliverers, and clerks are dealing with one that’s not obvious. They get up every day, regardless of the challenges, to live full, productive lives.
The rich and famous shine a light on individual issues and help us to understand how they impact real people. But those in the trenches, are the true unsung heroes. I see them every day in my practice.
Who inspires you?