Today as I join 1,000 other bloggers participating in the 1000 Voices Speak Project, I’m discussing a topic that is very close to my heart–a desire for increased compassion towards people with disabilities. As a speech/language pathologist, I work with children in pre-school through 5th grade towards the improvement of communication skills. The population of students I help ranges from those with severe speech/language impairments (nonverbal children with multiple disabilities, autism, downs’ syndrome, intellectually disabled etc.) to kids in general education classrooms with minor articulation (pronunciation) errors.
Cultural Perceptions of those with disabilities
Because I collaborate daily with a team of professionals who desire to help children with disabilities (physical therapists, occupational therapists, special education teachers, and a wonderful team of compassionate general education teachers) I sometimes forget that less compassionate views of disabilities continue to persist throughout the world. In fact, as I was wrote my friend Zenab’s story, Hausa Blues, I was surprised to learn that in her culture people with disabilities are called snakes.
When Zenab’s first son was born he refused to eat, and nearly died from malnourishment as a result. But when she sought guidance to improve her son’s condition, she received some strange advice. The people from her village in Yoko, Africa explained that her two week old son was, in fact, an old, wise man who belonged to a spirit world. “Over there he has a big house and many wives,” they said. She was then advised to leave him wrapped in a blanket by the river. They assured her that if she did this, he would turn back into a snake and return to the land where he feasted at night.
I’m thankful that in the United States attitudes are evolved beyond believing people with disabilities are snakes or old wise men visiting from a spirit world. I’m proud to be a part of an educational culture that strives to meet the needs of every child–regardless of intellectual capacity. But according to recent research on attitudes in the general public towards people with disabilities, we have room to grow as a culture. Research indicates the disabled experience an alarming degree of negativity when out in public such as on the metro bus or in the grocery store. On the other hand, positive attitudes and interactions were noted by those who regularly interact with the disabled in some capacity.
I believe the reason for this is partly due to a cultural value system that has misunderstood the worth of the human soul. Enormous value is placed on people who have intellectual capacity, particularly in the last fifty years. The most productive performers in society are deemed to possess the highest worth. For many who struggle to put together a sentence or communicate basic wants and needs, they might as well be a snake or old man visiting from a spirit world. Beliefs about what givens a human worth perpetuate the idea the disabled belong in another world, or at least don’t fit in this one.
Where to begin
I believe the majority of people want to express kindness, love, and acceptance. To the extent that it doesn’t happen is almost always based on some form of fear. I wonder if people who don’t interact regularly in some capacity with the disabled are afraid of not knowing how to interact. Afraid of not being able to relate. So I want to offer a place to begin. A bridge of sorts that might help a CEO understand how to relate to someone with autism, for example. In the 12 years I’ve spent working with children with disabilities, many internal shifts have happened. Each change in perception has made it easier to understand and relate to those I’m trying to help.
1.) I am here. At the core of every single human being is a heartbeat that longs to express: I am here, This is what I need, This is what I believe, This is what I want to share. We all long to be known, accepted, approved of. We all long to contribute something meaningful whether it is a paycheck, song, or painting. But even more than the desire to be recognized for what we do is a longing to be just enough because we are. On that very basic level, we can begin to understand what a highly intellectual person could have in common with someone intellectually disabled. On a heart level, we are all the same.
The problem is not so much what people believe about the disabled, but what we believe of ourselves. We think we aren’t worthy until we are perfect, until we have the perfect job, house, spouse, or body. But the more we permit the recognition of our own worth and value beyond what we DO, it becomes natural to accept that the disabled person has worth for simply being here too.
2.) We’re all handicapped in some way. Some of us have more apparent limitations than others, but just as every human is alive with a spark of Divine light, every single one has things to work out. Everyone has barriers to overcome, and obstacles to contend with. We differ in our individual developmental journeys, but nobody on earth has yet arrived in their fullness. In fact, some of the most brilliant people in the world are handicapped in their ability to love. So many of us are preoccupied with hiding the very limitations that make us human. The more honest we are about all we have yet to learn, the easier it is to identify with those who have intellectual limitations.
3.) Each perspective is a part of the whole. We’ve all heard the stories of how the blind develop highly attuned perceptions of hearing. In the same way, many people with disabilities are more highly attuned to perceiving energy and information through nonconventional channels. I remember the way my brother Elijah (born with a sensory integration dysfunction) used to laugh at the wall and ceiling when he was a toddler. I would crane my neck to follow his eyes in search of the source of his amusement. But when I perceived nothing but the wall and ceiling, I concluded his behavior was a symptom of limited functioning. Now I wonder if I was the one limited, and consider that he possessed the ability to see a dimension of reality that I simply couldn’t. It’s important to remain open to what we might learn about other levels of consciousness from those who are disabled. Only when we see through the eyes of each individual can we begin to understand the whole.
4.) Energy Matters. Compassion can be demonstrated through the simple act of changing our energy towards something. We all know what it feels like to pick up on a negative “vibe” from someone who is stressed out or upset with us. The unease can be downright palpable. The truth is that our energy is more important than anything we could ever say or do. This is particularly helpful to those who just feel like they don’t know how to communicate or relate to someone who is disabled. Even if you say nothing at all, smile. Send a bit of acceptance and love from your heart to theirs–silently. It will be felt on the level that matters most, the level where compassion is perceived, and suffering eased.
Do you believe it’s important to develop greater compassion towards the disabled?
image credit: thedailyenglishshow.com