Familiarity

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on June 10, 2019 # Mobility

“Disabled” is not a great word, when you get right down to it. It’s inherently judgmental. It means functionally impaired, permanently wounded, and in many minds, needy and dependent. There is no way of making it positive or upbeat. “Dis” is a Latin prefix for “having a privative, negative, or reversing force,” among other meanings, none of which are good.

Most of the disabled people I know, with some exceptions, are not dependent on anything, or damn near anything. The world may have to rearrange some access points or otherwise make other physical accommodations, but that seems relatively easy, on the surface. Physical access remains a persistent problem and why this is the case is baffling. People in the disabled community have to continually grouse about inaccessible voting booths, inaccessible offices, inaccessible parking, and inaccessible venues until the law comes down on violators, a sad state of affairs.

Physical access, theoretically, is a fixable problem. Beyond this, there is a psychological barrier bred by ignorance, mostly, and fear. It too is a bit baffling.

Disabled people, in real life, are often invisible. Others look away. They are surely invisible on TV and in film, lost among the beautiful, young, flawless personalities who don’t represent the population at all. Either the makers or audience, or both, like it that way.

Where does this social squeamishness come from? Lack of contact? Meeting a disabled person for the first time shouldn’t be so unnerving or scary. In 51 years, I knew one person in a wheelchair before I ended up permanently in one myself. Ignorance is easily changed. Even if you see their disability first, spend an hour with a guy or gal who is disabled and you won’t see them like that anymore. You’ll see them simply as themselves. The disability will no more be central to your perception than their weight, accent, or with some of us, male pattern baldness.

This one-hour rule works in crowds, too. I attended a splendid Hollywood event the other night called the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, now in its fifth year. Spearheaded by the exuberant actor/activist Nic Novicki, the competition works like this: Take a theme given to you, put disability in the middle of it, and in 48hours or so, conceive a short film, write it, cast it, produce it, edit it, and turn it in. This year 71 films were made and submitted, from all over the country. At the competition awards screening in the Kim Novak Theatre at Sony Studios, four of these films won one of the four DFC awards – actor, awareness, director, and film. Go to https://disabilityfilmchallenge.com to learn more about the competition and winners, past and present. I want to talk about the event itself.

As Nic quipped on stage, “We (the disabled) are 20% of the American population – okay, in this room, maybe 68%...” Like the Media Access Awards, another Hollywood awards event focused on disability, the theatre was probably fifty-fifty those with disabilities and those without. Everyone was so engaged in chitchatting and eating small hamburgers and mac-and-cheese balls that, I promise, not one disabled person in that room was thinking about their disability. And no one, disabled or not, was thinking about anyone else’s disability.

The misguided focus on someone’s disability instead of their person is not, in most cases, a function of deep bias. It’s a function of unfamiliarity. Certainly, in most social and business situations today, a person with a disability is an anomaly. He or she is usually the only such person in the room. Like Nic’s screening, you increase the presence of disabled people – maybe by only a few -- and it changes everyone’s perception. Familiarity breeds acceptance.

The ratio of disabled people to the rest of the population will never reach Nic’s estimate of 68%, but as the whole country ages, so will the number of disabled. Given there are 61 million people with disabilities in the US in 2019 – one in four adults, according to the CDC – that could easily go to one in three when old folks make up a much bigger piece of the population pie.

So, prepare to see more wheelchairs, canes, and walkers in your daily life. Also prepare to become more familiar with disabled people you encounter and less surprised, fearful, suspicious, superstitious, or uncomfortable. In terms of sheer numbers, demographics are on the side of the disabled. In terms of enlightened social policy that addresses the needs of those disabled who are truly dependent, well, who knows. As I said, many of the people, old and young, who we now label disabled are not disabled in the conventional sense. They are smart, educated, active, ambitious, and independent. And they aren’t going away. Count on them to make disability a pressing public priority in the years to come.