We need the entire nation to declare one month as “Disability Awareness Month.” In the late 1940s, Congress declared October for Disability Employment Awareness, and in the late 80s, Ronald Reagan declared March as Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. In the early 90s, after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, Boston and other cities declared July as Disability Pride Month. Since then, various states have created different versions of Disabilities Month in March, July and October.
March is Women’s History Month. July is problematic because everyone is on vacation, not paying attention, and definitely not a good time to reach children in schools. Here in Washington State, the legislature took action in 2008 to declare October as Disability History Month in public schools and and directed schools to “conduct or promote educational activities that provide instruction, awareness, and understanding of disability history and people with disabilities. The activities may include, but not be limited to, school assemblies or guest speaker presentations.”
Everyone agreed by the early 1970s that February was Black History Month, while we still have competing versions of when the history and rights of the disabled are in focus. Some states don’t even have anything on the books yet. The result? Our nation has never been able to achieve real awareness about, or understanding of, people with disabilities. To this day, when people see someone who looks disabled, old assumptions and feelings of discomfort come up. We are seen as fundamentally different and less capable before people event stop to discover our strengths.
Even when our disabilities are physical, people assume we’re not capable of thinking for ourselves, or making our own decisions. People should be educated from a young age to avoid mixing physical and mental abilities. They are two completely different things. Stephen Hawking brought awareness to the world on this point, and every year during Disability Awareness Month, students should watch a documentary about him and other successful people who have physical disabilities.
Of course, Stephen Hawking had the advantage of the being perceived as smart at a young age, with access to the best schools, before his disability changed what he could do physically. If we are born with physical disabilities, like in my case with severe scoliosis or even Multiple Pterygium Syndrome, then it’s a question whether developmental or learning disabilities are simply a result of physical problems or something else. Were my learning disabilities innate, or a result of hearing impairment and the inability to pay attention when I was in pain most of the time?
With modern media, we actually may be more brainwashed than ever about how “intelligent people” should look or act, when in fact, a lot of smart people are slow processors. As a friend on Facebook recently said, “I can only take in a certain amount of information before I have to stop and let my brain process it. If I continue to listen or read something after that point, I will understand the words, but I won’t remember the context.
“I feel like the world is geared toward stream of consciousness thinkers or people who are “always on”. Social media gives that illusion. Television shows use fast talking characters as a way to imply someone is intelligent. Popular YouTubers for the most part barely stop to breathe. Media personalities seem to get high ratings when all they do is yell and talk over people. I need many small breaks throughout the day or I can’t focus. I will zone out. No, I can’t help it. It’s just how I’m wired. It’s hard to explain this to people. They just think I’m disinterested in what they are saying. But what I’m really doing is deep thinking.”
He’s a tech manager for a Fortune 500 company, and like him, I have to process my thoughts at a deliberate pace. Still, I feel like I’m smarter than 90% of Americans – maybe because I do stop to consider things deeply – but of course that’s just my opinion lol. I’m a processor, definitely not a person who can process audially like those who can hear perfectly, or focus without the distraction of physical discomfort going on in my body.
I asked my friend Jeffrey Hibbard about this as well. He’s filming my documentary and like me, has been hearing impaired from a young age. He agrees that slow does not mean less intelligent, despite what teachers and peers thought about us throughout our school years. He says that when someone is talking to him, he often needs time to readjust his brain to focus on what someone is saying. It’s not something he could explain to teachers (and especially peers) until he was older, so it caused a loss of participation and learning over the years.
Does that cumulative loss from not having our disabilities accommodated affect our intelligence to this day? I guess, but we strive to make up for it, and we look for people perceptive enough to understand who and how we are. When people slow down and spend time with us, they get the inside scoop. They find out what things are important to know about our disabilities, and even more surprising to them, what things are not a big deal at all. They find out we are just like everyone else when it comes to 90+% of things.
There’s a huge lack of education in America about people with disabilities. As a country, we’re just not sensitive to other people, what they are going through, what their story is, what lead up to a point where we make assumptions. We believe ignorant things: like everyone can see the same, hear the same, pay attention the same way, or learn the same.
When people assume things about the disabled, what it really does is demonstrate their own lack of intelligence, or at least a lack of education. It’s a sign of social unawareness to assume someone can focus on what you’re saying when they can’t. From a young age, kids should learn this kind of social awareness. Jeffrey told me about an exercise he experienced in school that safely taught students what it’s kinda like to be disabled. Students were asked to wear ear plugs all day and try to learn while sitting in class, while others wore weights to know what it felt like too not move as fast, or to learn while tired.
I know that back in school as a kid, I didn’t know how to calmly educate people when they assumed things about me, or when they didn’t know how to teach me. Now as an adult, I have more patience and skill in speaking, so I know there is a way to get these concepts across. Taking personal responsibility like I’m trying to do now is a good start as to educating Americans about disability awareness, but there really needs to be a comprehensive effort from leaders with bigger platforms.
If we continue to ignore the need for educating people about disabilities, we are in essence teaching discrimination through ignorance. Kids are genuine. If you don’t teach them, they will be ignorant. As Jeffrey said when we were talking about this, it relates not just to disability awareness, but to the history of humanity as a whole. There’s so much ignorance, and it comes from the same place: assuming you know something about others that you don’t. Black History, or awareness about the challenges Jews faced throughout history, are great examples: if we don’t stand up and tell the real stories, they will repeat themselves.
I really think it’s because we’ve never had a unified national Disability Awareness Month that these misperceptions of the disabled continue. To correct the situation, collaboration is key. I would love to see national attention in the media focused on people with disabilities throughout the month. I’d like to see accurate and not pitiful representation of people with disabilities. We need recognition as being intelligent and talented. History is full of the literally most successful people in the nation and world who made it with disabilities. Franklin Roosevelt for one, or Helen Keller despite our generation growing up with the childlike caricature of her, forgetting everything she became in her adult life.
We need to change how people with disabilities are perceived. TV and news programs like Good Morning America could feature a different person every day of the month who has a disability and has nevertheless become successful. National media could feature national business owners, artists, actors, musicians, non-profit founders and political leaders. Regional media and universities should feature state leaders, and local schools should bring in local people who have been successful while living with disabilities. We’ve achieved so many things, and in our own ways.
I can live a normal and happy life just like everyone else, but it might look different, and it might take longer than a fully able-bodied person. One thing is for sure, it takes collaboration. Even typing this blog post! There’s just no way I could type this much with my hands like they are. Fortunately, I have a friend who types 60 words/minute as I talk, trained in a 9th grade semester-long typing class. He also uses what he learned in AP English to edit so the blog post is better received by the public. I wasn’t given the opportunity to take those classes in school.
I’m the “talent” in the collaboration, knowledgeable about the subject we’re talking about. Everyone has their strong suits and the things they aren’t good at. I like talking, and I talk about what I know. There are certainly times I need help, like transferring from my chair into a car and back, or having things built in a way I can access what I need to live. There are also things I need to learn, even about what some people might think I should know all about, like the ADA. I know what people with my particular disabilities need, but there are many kinds of disabilities, so I’m enrolled in an ADA Coordinator Training Certification Course so I can learn to consult widely on the subject.
I’m also learning as much as I can from Disability Rights Washington which has great resources for the public. It’s important people with disabilities have the right tools to be as independent as possible. The more tools taken away, or not provided in the first place, the more we need to rely on others. Why not just build things from the get-go that are accessible for everyone? Yes, it might increase the costs a bit at first, but it pays off over time.
My final thoughts on Disability Awareness Month is a message for my people to not hide. Go out, say what you have to say. I know we’re still dealing with situations that changed or limited our lives, and it’s definitely not easy to relive or talk about. Start putting a safety net in place for when the time comes to get out there and take a chance. Let’s send strong messages to our local, state and national leaders to declare one unified Disability Awareness Month and to encourage the whole nation to focus on it every year.