Authenticity

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on May 12, 2020 # Lifestyle

Many of the emotional cues that a person with a disability receives when encountering the outside world are both subtle and largely subconscious. Non-disabled people, especially at a first encounter, might think of you as sick or weak or even threatening. Usually this kind of mental assessment is hidden behind a smile or even an offer to help, though you hadn’t asked for any help. There could also be a wariness of saying or doing the “wrong” thing for fear of embarrassment. Even though one out of every four American adults are disabled, at times I still feel like an alien creature to many in day to day social interaction. And when internalizing this alien sentiment, that complicates the back and forth even more. Woman in wheelchair and man together on bridge

The Media Access Awards, with the help of Easterseals and the Writers Guild of America, published a booklet a while back called “Employing Writers with Disabilities,” a best-practices guild directed at producers and other show-makers who might feel nervous or unprepared in hiring anyone with a disability. One of the key questions that arose was how to conduct a first interview for a disabled job applicant or a writer pitching an original idea. This is an area where both parties might feel unsure or self-conscious about what to do or say.

The manual’s advice, for both the job giver and the job applicant, is “Don’t open the conversation talking about the disability.” Unless it is the very subject being discussed, a person’s disability is irrelevant to assessing the applicant or his or her talents. It is like asking the interviewee, “So, how long have you been bald as a billiard ball?” Both are beside the point.

I am more concerned about the disabled party in this exchange than the guy or gal behind the big desk. We all want to be upfront, of course, and not try to hide or disguise our disability. We want to be, in a word, authentic. Unfortunately, as I understood after reading a fine article on the subject in a recent New York Times, being “authentic” can sometimes get you in trouble. Written by psychologist Adam Grant, the piece argues against focusing on perceived vulnerabilities at the wrong time. It’s a bit like a boxer telling his opponent, “I have a week chin but don’t think about that, okay?” You may not think of your disability as a vulnerability but others very well might, especially if they as yet know nothing more about you.

Back to the writing interview. If you are a well-known writer with a lot of credits to your name, your disability, either spoken or unspoken about, isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference. But if you are a neophyte looking for a first job, the focus should be on your applicable skills or ideas or simply your presentation of self.

The actor Darrell “Chill” Mitchell, a star of the network series, “NCIS: New Orleans,” is both black and a wheelchair user, a double whammy in the still white-abled-body-male world of show business. Before he became famous, when he walked into an audition or pitch meeting, he says, he had about ten seconds to make the right impression. That impression was based on who he was, not his skin color or disability. Setting the right tone might be a spontaneous quip to get the room laughing. Or it might mean being so thoroughly prepared for auditioning a part that his acting became the focus, not the wheelchair. He played to his strengths, not his perceived limitations. There was plenty of time to talk about being black or disabled after he had proven himself up for the gig.

The other reason, Grant explains, for not opening a conversation with your disability story is that it might come across as self-serving or self-absorbed. The first class I ever taught as an adjunct instructor at the USC Cinema School was also one of my first public appearances in a wheelchair. Thinking it would “clear the air,” I started with a lengthy explanation of my paralysis. The fifty kids stared back at me, either politely listening or faking the same. Finally, one hand went up, I eagerly invited him to speak, and his question was, “Will there be a midterm exam in this class?” Immediately I realized that he nor his classmates cared a hoot about my problems – they cared about their problems and rightly so. Wheelchair or not, I was there to teach them and I should get on with it. Nix the self-serving life story.

The less you lodge your disability in the front of your frontal lobe, ready to talk about it at the drop of a hat, the better. If it’s not your first concern, it is rarely anyone else’s, no matter what fleeting fears or prejudices they might harbor. You can ice those fears and concerns by showing the person you are – funny, smart, engaging, spontaneous, authentic – the person who just happens to be disabled, in the same way I just happen to be as bald as a billiard ball.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.