His entire world had been turned inside out and upside down in the space of an hour. Men with special powers talk to him like he doesn’t know anything. And, to top it all off, this girl who says she’s a princess is asking him all about his lowly life. Finally, she has the nerve to insinuate that he is a slave. He quickly puts a stop to that nonsense, declaring, “I’m a person, and my name is Anakin!”
I’m a person, too. My name is Jordanne. As a person with a physical disability, I have been asked if I would like to be prayed for countless times, and I have viewed many movies and shows with able-bodied actors masquerading as people with disabilities. Nonetheless, there is one occurrence that’s even more common in my life. It isn’t as grand of a display, but it has come to have an even greater effect on my everyday life. Allow me to tell you a couple of stories, and you will understand.
I was wheeling through the grocery store with my mom. I was next to her, easily keeping up on the smooth tile floor. I don’t remember if we were talking, but, if we were, we immediately fell silent as an elderly woman with a cane deliberately approached us. She had tears in her eyes, and she shook her head slowly as her gaze shifted from my wheelchair to my legs. She didn’t once look me in the eye as she walked toward me. As soon as she was standing right in front of me, she leaned down close to my face, put her hand on my shoulder, and spoke slowly, enunciating every syllable to make sure I understood. “You are such an inspiration,” she nearly sobbed. “You are such a strong girl. If I were in your situation, I just don’t know how I would survive. I thought my life was hard, but then I saw you.”
He really came out of nowhere. At least, that’s how it felt. One minute I was sitting at a table during an event at my church, talking and laughing with my friend next to me. The next, I felt a gigantic hand on my shoulder. I turned my head, and was shocked to see the face of someone I had never met before, no further than two inches away from me. “Hey,” he said, in a voice that is not the voice a person should use talking to a human stranger, “you’re blocking the way. You really need to move.”
To be perfectly honest, it seems that people with disabilities are often relegated into two categories that are less than human. We are either seen as an inspiration for the able-bodied people in society, or a piece of furniture that gets in the way. But these conceptions of people with disabilities are not only unfair, they fail to recognize a basic truth.
While one of these options is certainly nicer than the other, to a point, both fail to realize this simple, but fundamental fact: people with disabilities are exactly that. We are people, and the fact that we are disabled does not change the truth of that. A person’s disability does not make them an idea to think about and take solace in, nor does it make them an inanimate object that can be moved at will. As Charlotte Brontë said in Jane Eyre, “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will.” I believe this is true of every person, but I think it can be said specifically for disabled people, who do appear to be ensnared. Regardless of our amount of physical limitation, we are still as free and independent as every other person.
Let me tell you one last story, this one about someone who seemed to know this truth better than nearly anyone I have met before. I went to a fundraising event for the nonprofit organization that my mom directs. I followed her around for most of the evening, talking to all the people she introduced me to. For the easily entertained extrovert in me, it was immensely exciting. I got the same reaction from these strangers as I always did, but, with a minimal amount of effort, I overlooked that. Then, I was introduced to someone who, quite honestly, helped me realize the truth I shared earlier. He was introduced to me as Dr. Bethel.
As soon as we began talking, he did not lean closer and speak slowly, nor did he invade my space bubble in any way. What he did do was kneel, so he could be on my level and look me straight in the eye as he spoke to me. He talked to me as if he thoroughly understood that he was talking to a thinking, feeling human being who should be treated accordingly.
I’ve only gotten the chance to speak with Dr. Bethel a couple times since meeting him, but, as Maya Angelou once wrote, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I believe that this, too, is an absolutely true statement. Why? Because I’ve had many encounters like the ones I’ve described here, but I remember the particulars of only a few. However, I won’t ever forget how each of these encounters with Dr. Bethel made me feel. Conversely, I’ll never forget how the people in these other interactions made me feel as well, but for different reasons.
As a disabled person, I believe it’s time we put an end to these misconceptions about people with disabilities. We are not here to be an inspiration to the more fortunate individuals in society. We are most definitely not here to be furniture that gets in the way. We are here for the same reason as every other person. We are here to live as well as we possibly can, as we were created to live.