Ever since I first ventured out in public with a wooden cane a few years ago, I've been on a mission.
Until I became one, I hadn't much noticed disabled people. Shortly after my diagnosis, however, I observed that the majority of disabled people who I encountered in public appeared to be miserable, and justifiably so. By reporting this observation, am I being unduly harsh or unfair to the disabled community? No. I think I'm just being honest.
If we accept my premise that most disabled people exhibit a gloomy disposition in public, then the question becomes how does this fact serve us? My answer- not well at all. When we appear sullen and withdrawn then it's easy for the healthy population to ignore us. They look right through us. People’s natural tendency is to avoid unpleasantness. Can we, should we, make ourselves less unpleasant for them?
I’m not suggesting that this is fair burden for us to carry, but I believe it is an appropriate one. We look so different from the healthy population that all too often they simply don't identify with us. Sure, they pity us, but that's not what we want.
We want the healthy people that we interact with in public to treat us as if we are not disabled. Or, to the extent that they do perceive our disability and reflect upon it, we want them to think, "Other than his disability, this guy is just like me," or "It’s only by good fortune that I’m not in his shoes." When people identify with us, and truly empathize with us, then we have their attention and they can be helpful.
We want the public to help. We want them to demand action from their government to further our causes. We want them to donate to charities that seek to cure what ails us. We want them to make buildings and parks and homes more accessible. We want the entrepreneurs to see the mutual benefits associated with making our lives better. We want Medicare to approve wheelchairs like my iBot that actually integrate us into our social and physical environments, not just allow us to move from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen. We don't want their pity. We want their respect and their help.
Toward this end, I've made it my personal mission to not appear miserable in public, even if I’m having a bad day. I know I’m not always successful in this endeavor, but I usually am. And I’m not a gregarious person by nature, but rather an introvert. I can be so caught up in my own little world that I’ll not even notice what others are doing around me. So, becoming friendly and outgoing in public is work for me. Nevertheless, when I am out in the community I make an extra effort to look as alert as I can, smile easily, and engage people in lively conversation whenever appropriate.
This approach is not completely altruistic though. It's not only about the mission. I behave this way, in part, for selfish reasons. Just as even a forced smile can improve your mood, compelling yourself to engage with others is a bootstrapping exercise that can potentially brighten your day. But it doesn't matter what my motivation is. My positive behavior can serve multiple purposes.
I'm aware that a few of my disabled friends may be irritated by this post. Isn't it enough that we suffer, Mitch? Must we also put in the extra effort to conceal our pain when we’re in public, to essentially be disingenuous? Of course not. I know that it is unfair to expect all disabled people to be friendly and engaging in public. Fatigue, depression, and other physical and mental challenges are sometimes overwhelming. That’s OK; there are plenty of us who are capable, at least some of the time. And to be clear, I am NOT saying that if you can't muster a happy face then you shouldn't go out in public at all.
If you are able to, and you are so inclined, then please join me in my mission. All that you need to do is make an extra effort to be engaging when you are in public. While you are out there meeting people, think of yourself as an ambassador for the disabled community. We can change perceptions one interaction at a time.
I didn’t dream up this mission myself. I inherited the idea from my mother, who, as a quadriplegic, fought the good fight for the last 39 years of her life. Her weapons: grace, dignity, and a warm smile.