I can’t do that. No, really I can’t.

Last night I opened an e-mail and glanced at the news. The news was about and within the world of disability. Susan Boyle has announced she has Aspergers, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case regarding intellectual disability and the death penalty, and the condition of unemployment amongst the disabled community. No, NOT AGAIN not that pesky unemployment issue!!!! I read the article.

I’ve thought a great deal about the reasons that so many disabled people aren’t employed and there are many. I’ve thought about being employed without assistive technology, and then doing a job with the needed tech. I’ve considered the competitive aspect of the subject. I feel anger but most of all the need to go to battle for those who aren’t able to go to work as they want to do.

For most of us whether we are disabled or born without a disability work and being able to work offers us dignity, a path out of possible poverty, the joy of being able to contribute in a meaningful fashion and the ability to do something we’re good at and we get paid for it. Working in a practical sense means that we are contributing members of our societies. We pay taxes consume services and help the economy grow. Isn’t this a good thing? Wouldn’t you think that society would want to see more people working and less of the disabled population receiving assistance?

The fact is that there are people working with those who have disabilities who are clueless. Why they are where they are is a question I have been asking for some time now. If you don’t understand the issues either take the time to really learn and understand or find a better place within which to do the job you are doing. A large part of working with the disabled population is understanding their needs. This is true for job placement as well.

I have come to the conclusion that we as a disabled community, no matter what our disabilities are, must push harder and talk louder. Those of us who have been born and lived a lifetime with our disabilities can testify to the fact that generally society is clueless. If we don’t fit the general mold we are told to not bother. We are told either subtly or not so subtly that this is not a place for us. It’s an attitude.

Often it begins within the home. One or both parents can’t accept the child or the adult with the disability so that child or adult gets abandoned by either one or both parents. This abandonment can take two forms during childhood: either physical or emotional. If there are siblings they may pick up on this clear message and they may also turn on the child as well. Divorce, disillusionment and a lack of acceptance by family members can leave the disabled child or adult fearful and searching for answers. Outside of the home society follows with the same message. Life can be hard and dealing with the added layer of a disability only serves to challenge us further. I’m not surprised that there is anger and depression within the disabled population. When who are appear to be is viewed as someone to be rejected why wouldn’t there be anger and depression?

I should pause here to note that there are those fortunate to be born into strong loving homes. These homes shelter, support and prepare the child for the world outside of the home as best they can. It is this preparation that will serve as a safe place when society stings and rejects. Unfortunately this rejection and the stings are all too common.

There are those within society that are supportive and active in the process of change and understanding. There are those who want to see acceptance and inclusion for all. I don’t think we are dreamers. I do think that we have an understanding of what is right for society as a whole.

I personally have had my encounters with the illogical thinking of others. Those supposedly trained to work with the disabled population. As a student trying to find a way to attend the university without family assistance I spoke with a rehab counselor. “Yes there are funds for you IF you major in computer science.” Now at that time there were grand shortages of people entering this field. It was the early eighties and the technology boom was coming down the pipeline in full force. I thought about this for a moment and inventoried my skills. “Let’s see here I can’t do mathematics due to dyscalculia, can’t type well, and the amount of visual work involved is going to fry my visual circuits. I have not aptitude for this. Who in their right mind would be suggesting this to me?” I can’t do that. No, REALLY, I CAN’T. I followed my heart, my dreams, and my aptitude and did what I knew to be best for me.

Let’s be realistic the choice of a career should involve not only aptitude for the career but the ability to perform it. Being disabled has taught me to understand my limits but to allow myself to try to stretch. If I fail at something it isn’t for lack of trying. At times it seems like society sends the message that “you can’t try that because you will certainly fail.” I respond with “let me see what I can do with this. Can I adapt doing this to being visually impaired? Maybe I can and maybe I can’t but isn’t it my choice? I have lived with my body for decades now and I’m aware of its limitations.

As I write this I am struck by the fact that there is a huge amount of information that must be spoken of in order to fully address this topic. One question that keeps returning to my mind is this: If Stephen Hawking were to interview in his present physical condition, not having yet done the work he has done, would he be hired? Why is my answer “most likely not.” Because: hypocrisy is involved and people aren’t always able to get past the fear of the unfamiliar.

As humans we fear what we don’t understand. We run scared from the unfamiliar. We are not always the courageous explorers portrayed in the movies. As a species we can become animals on the attack. We have not evolved to the state where we can accept differences. Now this is not the politically correct thing to say but it is true of much of the human race. Because of this fact I’m writing this post. I’m posting this in hopes that people will take a hard look at who they are in relationship to this issue. Rather than attempting to be politically correct I’m hoping they’ll want to be honest and grow towards true understanding.

I spent time working for an agency that worked with intellectually challenged adults. The attitude was that if we could coach the client to do the job they’d be an asset to the company. The place of employment had to be a good fit for everyone involved and we had to educate owners and managers about expectations. When a match was made it worked well and because of that a great thing happened for both the employee and the employer. It took time, education and cooperation on everyone’s part. It wasn’t about earning money but rather about the result.

We only have so much control over our lives. No matter what our circumstances might be there is only so much we can do to affect our condition. As someone with a disability taking control over what I can is essential because it will enable my independence and dignity. I can speak out. I can teach others to understand the issues surrounding the disabled. I can learn about what I am unfamiliar with. I can work within my own sphere of influence to enable others. So can you.

Change comes about one victory at a time. Change is about listening to people and learning from them and with them. Change is about defining who we are in a way that others can understand. It is about communication and knowledge. Change results for everyone when we open our ears and see with our eyes in new ways. “Change is learning to see an old rainbow in a new way.”

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About Gail Nicolaysen-Shurtleff

I am an American who is living in The Netherlands. I am a Marriage and Family Therapist with a license to practice in California. Music has been a huge part of my life. Singing is something you can find me doing at any time and anywhere. I have to admit that I try to not sing while out in public though. You can also find me in the kitchen cooking up wonderful things. cooking is something that I have just recently (in the last ten years) discovered that I'm talented at doing, and it is really fun. The best way to know me is to read my blog.
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4 Responses to I can’t do that. No, really I can’t.

  1. Denise says:

    You are so right that a large part of working with the disabled population is about understanding their needs. That would go a long way towards giving disabled people the environment in which they can do their jobs to the best of their ability.

    • Gail Nicolaysen-Shurtleff says:

      Yes, understanding IS a key ingredient in this mix. The person bagging groceries or busing tables might be a tiny bit slower than “you” might be able to do it but does that matter? A good question to keep in mind would be “if this were my relative how would I want to treat them? How would I want others to treat them?” It is OK to ask someone to explain their disability. That is how understanding becomes reality.

  2. T. D. Davis says:

    Thanks so much for this. My daughter has PDD, and I wonder daily what adulthood will be like for her, what she’ll do for a living, whether she’ll ever have a real friend that I don’t have to worry about taking advantage of her or telling her that she’s weird. Your sentiments hit home.

    • Gail Nicolaysen-Shurtleff says:

      T.D. you and your daughter are the reason for this post. I have the same concerns for this population. The fact is that while society is attempting to “say” one thing their actions indicate the opposite. Parents who love and care for their sons and daughters are the basis of hope for society.

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