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Seeing the Individual Not the Disability

Written By: Brenda (B.K.) Walker

Many battles have been fought and will be fought on Capitol Hill focusing on 'Individuals with Disabilities.' The real battle doesn't involve politicians or political agendas; the real battle is fought every day, on the streets, in the schools, on the playgrounds, at work, at home…everywhere. The issue is how we see the disability long before we see the individual.

Just think about this 'buzz phrase' for a moment…'Individuals with Disabilities.' What did you focus on? Was it 'individuals' or 'disabilities?' What do you notice first when you see someone with Cerebral Palsy, do you see the wheelchair, walker, cane, maybe even the unusual gait? Be honest. When you walk past the individual, can you remember what their face looked like, the color of their hair, whether they were smiling or frowning…were they crying?

What part of 'Individuals with Disabilities' even infers 'individual?' It's just a phrase…one that infers the need to pigeonhole every person designated as having a disability into one lump. There is nothing about the 'catch phrase' that promotes viewing people as individuals. It does, however, bode much better than 'retarded' or 'cripple.'

We live in a society that seeks perfection…the most beautiful, the smartest, the best at something. Yet, we look for the flaws in those around us in order to deflect from our own less than admirable qualities. It is our 'perceived flaws' that are the very thing that makes us unique, different from the crowd. We want to fix what we perceive to be broken, without consideration of the individual we desire to fix.

No one is saying that scientific research is not of great value to our society. What I am saying, is the approach is flawed. We need a cure for Parkinson's disease, Muscular Dystrophy, and many other debilitating diseases. Now consider a statement that serves as the introduction to a recent article in Scientific American:

"People born with Down syndrome have always been considered to be incurably developmentally delayed-until now."

Ouch! Now that stings just a bit, whether or not you have Down syndrome, have a family member with Down syndrome, or a friend with Down syndrome. Again, it's not the research at issue here; it's how it is presented to the public. In the case of the above-mentioned article, a group of researchers has been diligently pursuing altering the chromosomal defect implied as the cause of Down syndrome. The article, published in Science Translational Medicine, delineates an interesting approach to the research conducted by geneticist, Roger Reeves and his team. But many of the articles covering this research imply that a person with Down syndrome is broken, damaged goods that need to be fixed.

It isn't as though the world has stopped moving forward in its views of 'Individuals with Disabilities.' Thanks to Congress, October is now designated as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Could've sworn we already had an amendment to the constitution that prevented employers from discriminating in the employment of 'Individuals with Disabilities,' but hey, you take what you get from Congress, especially when it's something good. Even The Wall Street Journalis promoting companies that hire people with Autism in there March article "How Autism Can Help You Land a Job." I'm not particularly fond of the title…I guess WSJ was attempting to put a positive spin on have Autism. Either way, it caught my attention.

How sad it is, that we are still incapable of looking beyond the physicality of a human being. We constantly make jokes that short people are 'height impaired.' I even joke that I have a permanent disability, it's called 'yack-a-matic syndrome' because I talk a lot. How about those people with 'diarrhea of the mouth syndrome.' Their mouth is always in motion long before their mind is in gear. Oh, and let's not forget the 'riding the short bus' jokes that abound.

I remember as a child, never thinking much about the color of someone's skin, how they spoke, what they wore, or how they looked. Perhaps it was because I was a military brat and, back then in the military, that sort of stuff just wasn't that big of a deal…now the difference between Officers' kids and the Enlisted Men's kids…that was a completely new ball of wax.

Here's something to consider, that will no-doubt ruffle a few feathers, maybe even offend one or twenty…my mother had a saying about men, went something like this…

"Men are the gender-delayed species and there will come a time when they will be able to collect disability for it."

Now, if you found that offensive, consider how it must feel to be deemed 'incurably mentally delayed.'

All the laws and amendments in the world cannot erase nor ensure that everyone is treated equally…probably why it also says 'in the eyes of the law.' As a society, if we do not openly accept one another, each with our own differences, disabilities, and delays, then society will not grow. Considering that the government is us, the people, society, how do we expect it to be able to approach equality for all people when we are unable to see the 'individuality' of a person?

Perhaps the concern should not be over how much assistance we are giving to those in need, rather how much we are not giving and the type of assistance we are offering.

The most broken, damaged people I have met in life didn't have Cerebral Palsy, MS, or any other of the designated 'disabilities;' they were people who were given many opportunities to lead successful and happy lives but chose to focus on what they didn't have and the flaws in life, rather than what was good.

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