A few months ago, I was having coffee with a friend from CUNY, telling her about this internship and I mentioned the slogan of YAI, "Seeing Beyond Disability." She took issue with it, commenting that people should not have to see beyond disability, they should just see disability and accept it as a part of the person. Ideally, yes that should happen; however, we do not live in an ideal world. Sometimes people have to see beyond disability first, in order to be able to come back and accept disability.
I remember a few years back, I was having lunch with a very dear friend of mine near Lincoln Center when we saw a couple dressed up, on their way to what we assumed was their prom or some other formal event. What was striking about this couple was the young woman, who was wearing a bright red dress, had a metallic prosthesis for her left leg. She could not have been older than seventeen or eighteen and yet the confidence in the way in which she walked arm in arm with her date was stunning.
In a conversation with another friend, my disability came up and my friend said, "I can't believe people call you or think of you as disabled! I don't." When I asked her what she considered "being disabled" meant, she said she considered it being human. Her answer has stayed with me ever since because that was the first time someone had said something that bold, that it started to shift my view of having a disability to one of having a shared experience in relating to disability, especially in seeing the hidden disabilities in others around us.
I was finishing up a lunch meeting with my pastor in Tucson, Arizona, and as we were walking back to his car, he echoed the same statement of not considering me disabled. Now, it is important to point out that neither of them considers disability as something negative, something that should be feared and avoided. They could see my disability as a part of me, rather than being all of me; which is what most people see when they see a person with a disability. They see only the disability and not the person who happens to have a disability. A disability is a part of a person but it does not make up the person.
I like to meet new people whenever possible and recently a close connection was formed through a social networking site. When the topic of my voice came up, through promoting last week's blog post, I asked the person if she could get used to my voice, especially if our connection progressed. She said, "Your natural accent is a part of what makes you who you are and that's beautiful."
Seeing beyond a disability is not hard to do, it allows a person to see another person's full potential while being aware of all the parts that make up that person. Seeing beyond is not ignoring. It is about accepting, even if that acceptance is not right away in some cases. So if you are struggling with the "seeing beyond" concept or know someone who is, as a person who has experienced both stigma and acceptance, I offer this advice: Take a risk, see the whole person, and plan to be surprised.
Something was left out of my recent introduction and I did so on purpose. Not because I am ashamed of it — very much the opposite. I have a speech impediment and unless someone has knowledge about my type of cerebral palsy (such as doctors or physical therapists), my speech is the main external indicator that I have a disability. The fact that my speech impediment -- what I refer to as an accent -- has a whole blog post devoted to it, is not so much my way of romanticizing it, as it is to draw attention to some of the most common misconceptions in society about having a speech impediment.
The first one, which I have had to wrestle with for years, is that if I cannot speak properly, then one of two things must be true: either I have an intellectual disability (ID) or I am drunk. Let me unpack these two assumptions that are as off-base as teaching children that the earth is flat.
I have dysarthria, a motor speech disorder caused by my cerebral palsy. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, dysarthria occurs because “the muscles of the mouth, face, and respiratory system may become weak, move slowly, or not move at all after a stroke or other brain injury.” My “other brain injury” was my premature birth. At the top of the list of symptoms of dysarthria is slurred speech. The most common activity society associates with slurred speech is being drunk. The fact that I am also Irish does not help matters.
If someone cannot speak properly and they are not drunk, then the other “reasonable” explanation is that there must be some issue with their intellect. While in some cases, that may be true, it is ridiculously unfair to blanket that assumption to every speech impediment. Many people with dysarthria are quite intelligent.
People are so accustomed to the natural development of speech that it is taken for granted. But in fact, it is a skill learned and developed over a lifetime. However, just like tomorrow is never an iron clad guarantee, neither is the mastery of speech. The ability to speak can be taken away at any time -- just ask most anyone who has had a stroke. I personally do not take speech for granted. That is because I have to earn it day in and day out.
The taunt that I hear most often is the classic one, a word that virtually everyone with disabilities gets called at one time or another. I have been called the R word so many times because of my speech, it no longer phases me -- but that does not mean the sting has been taken out of it. The R word is as hateful as the N word.
Despite the taunts, my speech accent has never impelled be to hide or be quiet. Public speaking is one of my skills and I am often asked to do so. I enjoy it and by putting myself out there, I am helping to dispel people's knee jerk reaction to speech impediments. After a few minutes of hearing me, ears adjust to the rhythm of my voice and the passion comes through, illuminating the topic I am speaking on. One could say that I was born for the stage, even with my accent.
Even after 24 years since it was signed into law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is still having trouble gaining traction, especially regarding Title 1 which focuses on employment.
According to United Cerebral Palsy's 2014 "The Case for Inclusion" report, only 13 percent of people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, are currently employed in New York.
The U.S. federal government is offering tax credits to companies that hire people with disabilities. Among these tax credits is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which allows a company who "fills a vacant position with a WOTC-certified employee, the employer can become qualified to claim a federal income tax credit for a portion of the new employee's salary." (For more information, please visit: http://www.thinkbeyondthelabel.com/Blog/post/Making-Sense-of-Tax-Credits-for-Hiring-People-with-Disabilities.aspx)
This tax credit, among the others that are offered, has the noble aim of increasing the employment of people with disabilities, while providing employers with an incentive to save money on taxes by hiring individuals with disabilities. I am well aware that these incentives also help companies pay for reasonable accommodations for their employees with disabilities and especially in this economy, whatever helps those with disabilities should be embraced. Never mind that you have to wonder if companies (or at least some of them) are using the hiring of people with disabilities as simply a way to save money, instead of hiring people with disabilities to increase the diversity of their workforce.
What matters most is that people with disabilities should be hired on their merit and their willingness to work, not on the basis that employers can save on taxes. All of that aside, the fact remains that in the State of New York, it is not working. Looking at the data in the scorecard for New York by United Cerebral Palsy, the highest percentile of employment was 15 percent in 2004, in 2006, it dropped to its lowest at 12 percent and since 2009, it has remained at 13 percent.
The report ranks New York as the 5th best state in the country for people with disabilities. So given that, it makes no sense why companies are not hiring individuals with disabilities. Could it be the social concern that hiring people who are differently abled might upset customers? While that is understandable in some regard, after all people fear what they do not understand or have had no prior exposure to. However, it is up to employers who, if they claim to support diversity in the workforce to promote diversity of all types, not just the types they understand or are comfortable with.
Elbert Hubbard said it best: "It is a fine thing to have ability, but the ability to discover ability in others is the true test."