By Adria Nassim
When I’m in front of an audience sharing about my life with multiple disabilities, I try to be very relaxed, natural, and easygoing and make my presentations fun and interesting. I recognize that not every person listening may have had prior experience with anyone with a disability, and they may be a bit nervous. Most of the groups I speak to are composed of college students, many of whom are very engaged and talkative during class with me, and genuinely seem curious and want to learn.
However, I do, at times, detect a certain quiet fear or hesitation just beneath the surface of their attentive gazes. They want to ask questions or say something, but out of fear and personal discomfort with my situation, they keep quiet. Anxiety is a very strong force.
Where does such fear and anxiety come from?
According to SCOPE, a disability equality organization in Great Britain, researchers found that 67% of people feel uncomfortable talking to a person with a disability. As their 2018 study, The Disability Perception Gap, reveals, this discomfort primarily stems from fear, ignorance, and lack of exposure.
I do understand the anxiety to a certain degree, but sometimes I walk away thinking, “I’m not a piece of glass. I’m not going to break. It’s really okay.”
I was recently speaking to a group of college students, and occasionally the professor would ask me questions to help guide the discussion. However, as we opened it up for Q&A, I noticed that it was only after the professor asked a question that students finally began to speak up, almost as if they were saying, “Oh! Well, if she asked her something, then I guess it’s okay that we do, too.”
Don’t get me wrong, I really like doing speaking engagements. But sometimes I feel like the only way to get people to understand my life is when they get a grade for sitting at a desk and listening to me talk about my challenges. Very few people will naturally ask what my life is like, and very few people will talk to me about things other than disability now that disability advocacy is my career. But honestly, those who do are the types of people I like.
I’m not a piece of glass. I’m not going to break.
A 2011 Scientific American article by Mark Schaller describes how awkwardness and anxiety around those with disabilities may stem from an outdated belief involving disease avoidance. Individuals who were physically, behaviorally, or cognitively “abnormal” were often isolated by the general public in order to avoid spreading their condition.
Now, let’s get real. You cannot “catch” any type of disability, nor can the individual diagnosed with it spread it to others. I think most people today understand that. However, this old way of thinking still resonates. People are sometimes less relaxed around a person with a disability. They may talk less or even hesitate to sit next to them at a function. Also, when I tell someone I have a disability, their reaction tends to be: “Well you’d never know if you hadn’t said anything,” as if having an invisible disability is somehow better or luckier than a visible one. It’s not.
Sometimes I feel that young people resist engaging with their peers with disabilities because they don’t want to “say something offensive” or “do something they shouldn’t.” Perhaps they feel unprepared or like they don’t know enough. But we’re all human, aren’t we? Don’t you like to go to the movies or out to dinner? Don’t you like dogs? Have you heard Ed Sheeran’s new album? I have.
This is not an everyday occurrence, but on the occasion that things like this do happen, it is a very strong reminder that our society still regards people with disabilities—people like me—as “other,” as “unworthy,” or as “too big of a conundrum to be worth your time.”
I’m not something to be dealt with. I’m not a problem. I’m me, and people like me are just themselves.
Disability is not a choice. The way you respond or react to it is.