Disability And Happiness

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on August 05, 2015 # Advocacy and Policy

Every anniversary of the ADA, amidst all hoopla about the gains in public accommodations and transportation that have been made, there is the grim recitation of the brutal facts about the real status of the people with disabilities. As one magazine put it, we are "poor, jobless, and. bored." According to an NPR report, people with disabilities are twice as likely to be poor as those without disabilities.

The unemployment rate for people without disabilities is 5.3. If you are disabled, it rises to 9.3%, and that doesn't include the untold numbers of people with disabilities who gave up before they started. Only 20% of people with disabilities participate in the labor force, compared to 61.1% of the non-disabled population. There are so few gainfully employed people with disabilities that there is hardly a chance that one of them will hire someone else with a disability. The really grim news is that it is not getting better.

This is a complex issue that has plagued disability leaders for decades, yet has virtually no one's attention in Washington. It certainly demands fixing, but for the moment, let's pivot and focus on something that we as individuals can learn to master and control -- our own attitude. This will not change the world, but might make it easier for us to live and prosper in the current one, and maybe live a happier life.

I'm sure you have heard this idea more than once in your post-paralytic life, but because you hear it a lot doesn't make it less true or less worth reiterating. The latest thinking about the seminal role of attitude was described in a recent New York Times essay entitled "The Dangers of Happiness." I think the title is a bit misleading. It's really about the modern pursuit of happiness and the possible "danger" of this approach.

The article quickly chronicles the evolution of what has comprised the road to happiness from Aristotle until today. The reigning cultural notion, it concludes, is that happiness is not a function of a shared public morality or religion or a rigorous philosophy like the Greeks. It is attained by the individual who digs deep to find out what makes him or her happy. In slightly goofy new-age speak, to quote from the article, "To be happy at a time when we prize authenticity and narcissism, we need to express our true inner self, get in touch with our deeper feelings, and follow the path set by ourselves."

"Follow the path set by ourselves." That's the key idea. "Work hard and be productive. Be strong. Don't rely on other people to achieve these goals."

People with disabilities are often seen as the antithesis of these principles. In many minds, we don't have the capacity to be productive and work hard, and might even be lazy, God forbid, or enjoy doing nothing. We are by definition weak in some area, which colors our whole being. If you're in a wheelchair, for instance, people often shout into your ear, assuming, I guess, that you are deaf, too. Perhaps the most damning assumption is that the disabled are chronically dependent on others, especially large, expensive government programs. The fact that we are twice as poor as the rest of the population rarely gets mentioned. Rand Paul once said that he thought that two-thirds of the people on disability were cheats. Cheats or just deadbeats.

The truth is that people with disabilities can pursue the same path to individual happiness as anyone else. There are two ways to do this, I think. One, do exactly what the high achieving "path set by yourself" demands. Work your butt off. Be indefatigable. Defy expectations. Be an entrepreneur or skillful at business politics. Never slow down, minimize your need for others, and work to reach the point where you can say to yourself, "I have made it."

The other fork involves a radically different outlook. It begins with the assumption that your attitude will always trump your circumstances, however awful they may be. You can be poor, depend on government largesse, and not be conventionally ambitious, and still be happy. Some social research shows this to be true. To quote one of the leaders of the positive psychology movement, "victims of car crashes are, on the whole, neither less nor more happy than lottery winners."

That's the message I take from the piece: despite your situation, you can develop a healthy attitude – much like developing a muscle – that can provide great personal rewards. But, as the title of the article says, there is a dark side to this rigid doctrine of self-reliance. If we can all be happy -- rich or poor, disabled or non-disabled -- then there is no reason for politicians, or the public at large, to much care about us. It's up to you, pal. This is the libertarian attitude expressed in Jeb Bush's line that people are poor because they aren't working hard enough. Too much rampant individualism makes for a mean, I-got-mine society.

The main point, if you buy it, still stands. Happiness is your own responsibility and has little or nothing to do with being rich, famous, looking like Tom Brady, or being "able-bodied." I don't think you have to be selfish or uncaring to do this. You can still fight for the disabled to get a fairer shake. Your definition of happiness may involve any of the many assumptions that have historically defined happiness – a moral code, the pursuit of pleasure, rigorous emotional discipline, or following the dictates of a faith. However you slice it, in this day and age, you are in charge.

John Lennon said it in a more concise, poetic way. "If the Beatles or the Sixties had a message, it was to learn to swim. Period. And once you learn to swim, swim."

© 2015 Allen Rucker | Like Allen on Facebook

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