Thursday, July 16, 2009

Assertively disabled.

I was raised in the late 60's, early 70's, by parents who wanted me to grow up to be a "nice" young boy. I was taught to be quiet, well mannered, considerate, courtious, and to always turn the other cheek when hurt. Sadly none of this "skills" were appropriate and upon leaving school and venturing out into the big bad world I had to put myself through my own crash course in real life skills which incorporated stating my case, learning to say no, becoming self centered, and learning to turn my back on others. Having to learn those new skills cost me at least five to seven years of my business career, but I learned them, and became more savvy as a result.

All this rushed back to me the other day as I read a story of a disabled girl, well, woman really. She was waiting for a bus one morning in her powerchair when the kid of some other passengers began hassling her, and messing with her chair. She was a "nice" woman, and didn't want to hurt the feelings of the kid, or its conveniently deaf and blind parents. The nett result was that the child pulled one too many of the powerchair's cables, thereby breaking it. The bus arrived, collected all the other passengers, but left the woman behind because she was not able to get her powerchair going and onto the bus. Help eventually came, but the damage had been done, not so much to the powerchair, but to the woman's persona. The cherry on the top of this story is that in resolving her powerchair woes the woman was advised by her friends that it was better that she had not asserted herself because she needed to stay a nice and sweet woman. What a lot of bollocks!

It is tough enough being physically disabled, without making ourselves socially disabled as well. Sure, no-one wants a disabled brat for a child. Come to think of it, I don't want an able-bodied brat either! But, as a disabled youngster one has to be taught to fight, not in the fisticuffs sense, but in an assertive way. My folks thought they could fight my battles for me, which was a noble thought, but sadly out of touch with reality. It is a dog eat dog world regardless of what people say and disabled kids need to be encouraged to become streetwise. Being disabled cuts little slack unless one is looking for pity or sympathy. That buys you a life of subservience, like a second class citizen. People who are nice to me because I'm in a wheelchair are being nice to me in a condecending way. Their niceness is therefore worthless. We have to learn, and parents have to teach, the ability to look others in the eye and know that we are better than them. We have to have the confidence to know when we are right, and they are wrong. Turning the other cheek, averting ones eyes, and being apologetic are traits of the downtrodden, of the oppressed. We don't need to apologise for who we are, look like, and want from life.

We spend too much time worrying what others think of us. This is particularly true of us disabled. We worry what others think of our misshaped bodies, of our broken speech, and our struggling mobility. We spend a lot of time and effort trying to minimise the differences between us and the able-bodied world, that world which so idolises perfection of the human form. I used to fret over those issues, until one day I came to the realisation that nobody actually gives a damn. The majority of the population is so caught up in their own little world that "we" are just passing curiosities. The boys at school used to point and comment, but five minutes later I was forgotten when the next short skirted girl came into view. People stop and look at me in the street, but again, once they see a sign proclaiming "potatoes for R10 a pocket" at P&P I am quickly relegated down the priority list.

Once I realised that my disability only occupied people's minds temporarily until their next thought came along, I was free. Who cares about funny walks (John Cleese has made millions out of his!), or wheelchairs, or skinny deformed bodies! If you've got a problem with the way I look then that's your problem, and don't make your problems my problems. But it does not end here, or it should not. The space created by ridding oneselves of needless concerns allows one room to grow. Its like a spring clean. Out goes the old unused baggage, and in comes the fresh new stuff. You might go through the spring-cleaning process again in the future but that's not a bad thing. It is a progressive process, not a retrogressive one.

In our new space we can be ourselves. We can even fine tune ourselves. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a psychoanalyst, Stephen Covey, type of guy. I have a tough time grasping idealistic principles, but I do believe in believing in me. I believe in my abilities, my rights, my goals, and most importantly my space. I have the same freedoms at other human beings, I might just have to exercise them differently. If you choose to trample on any one of those then be prepared to have to deal with my wrath, because I also believe I have the freedom to be angry. I am entitled to be my own person. I don't need to be like others. I am comfortable in my difference.

I'm a friendly guy, some might even call me nice!, but I don't cruise around looking like a toothpaste commercial with a smile on my face all day. I have bad days as well as good, and if you rub me up the wrong way on a bad day I will growl at you. I get angry, I swear, I bear grudges, I seek revenge. I also smile, and laugh, and joke, and encourage, congratulate and commend people I don't even know.

The strange thing is I never shout, perhaps it has something to do with "children should be seen, but not heard" . . . but then that's another story!