Thursday, October 1, 2015

you get a different perspective when you're always lying on the floor

I sent a text earlier tonight to my mom that ended with "It's time to blog!" so here I am!

First, please excuse any errors in this post - my brain fog is pretty bad right now (I forgot which floor my Arabic AT classroom was on despite going there twice a week for the past five weeks.  I also didn't remember taking my meds. So I'm pretty out of it.) and my hands are a little stiff so typos are bound to happen.  I'll try to catch them.

Anyway, it seems that every time I start thinking "Wow, I haven't written a blog post in a while!  I need to think of another topic to address!" something happens that demands to be blogged about.  Tonight, it was our diversity workshop for Davidson 101. 

(Davidson 101 is this series of talks you have to go to in the first semester of your freshman year about campus safety, safe sex, counseling resources, etc.)

Anyway, I head into the workshop in our Multicultural House with a friend of mine and sit on this round couch type thing and try to keep myself from pre-judging the presentation.  The head of Multicultural Affairs is leading it.  She must be pretty in touch with all the diversity on campus, right? Who knows?  Maybe they could address disability as a cultural identity and an important part of campus diversity!  It's always possible!

Unfortunately, they did not.

First of all, the workshop should've been renamed Racial Diversity, because that was the focus of 90% of the presentation.  Race is obviously an extremely important issue to address, and I'm glad we got so much information about it, but there are other important cultural identities - religion, queerness, gender - that at least deserve a little bit of air time.  I'm not saying we should've gotten less information about race - I certainly came out of that workshop with a lot of important knowledge - but I think we should've gotten more information about other identities.  Maybe we need to divide this workshop up into multiple sessions, one for race, one for religion, one for gender, and so on.  Just throwing out suggestions.  But I did find it kind of ironic that our workshop on diversity wasn't exactly diverse in the topics it covered.

Throughout the presentation, I kept waiting for disability to come up.  Socioeconomic, racial, religious, gender, and queer diversity all at least got mentioned.  Disability was going to get its moment any second now, right?  Our presenter came to the slide on campus organizations for various identities and as each one was listed, I kept anticipating our disability organization, LEAD, to pop up.    At least we would appear once in the entire hour and fifteen minute presentation, right? No such luck.

At the end of the session, our presenter gave us a sheet with three short questions on it.  The last was something along the lines of "What cultural identity would you like to have more information about?" and I, as expected, wrote disability and may have scribbled something about it being the least discussed cultural identity on campus.  As soon as the door of the Multicultural House closed behind me, I turned to my friend and exclaimed that they didn't mention disability once.  She had actually been about to say the exact same thing.  Clearly, I keep good company.

So what's the takeaway from all this?  Sure, I got a little annoyed that disability didn't get a single mention, but there are some larger implications about what we view as legitimate or worthwhile cultural identities.  I just consulted Wikipedia, and it defines a cultural identity as an element of a person's self-conception that is related to any kind of social group with its own distinct culture.  I'm pretty sure disability meets all of those criteria.  So if all that's in order, I guess the ultimate question is why disability didn't get mentioned here, and in many other venues, as an element of diversity.  I have a few ideas.

Disability is often viewed as an affliction, not an identity.  Disability isn't thought of as something to be celebrated and discussed, but as something to be avoided and cured.  We look at someone who's disabled and think about how their disability must create difficulties in their life, not about how their disability has shaped their thoughts, personality, and experiences in a positive way.  We don't think about what these different perspectives can bring to a community.

Chronic illness, in particular, is a difficult disability to celebrate.  I know this firsthand.  Sometimes it's hard to embrace this thing that makes me feel like shit all the time, that requires constant monitoring, that keeps me from doing things that I love.  Chronic illness has taken a lot from me, but (as cheesy as this sounds) it's given me a lot too.

I'm not going to spew some b.s. about how you should always look on the bright side and never be sad or acknowledge difficulties in your life.  Because having a chronic illness can suck.  No getting around that.  But it's also shaped me in really positive ways - it's made me more compassionate and more confident and more grateful and more determined.  It's forced me to get better at planning and organizing.  It's taught me how to keep cool in a crisis.  It's allowed me to meet really amazing people.  I'm happy with the changes it's brought about in me.

The other problem people have with disability as a cultural identity is that identifying with your disability somehow is perceived as giving up.  The idea is that you should reject your disability, you shouldn't view it as a part of you, and you should constantly endeavor for it to have the least possible impact on your life.  I hate to break it to you guys but that's... just not possible.  Or even desirable.

My disability is part of my identity, and it's an identity I'm happy with.  I hope I've made that pretty clear.  It's also not something from which I can separate myself.  I view the world through my chronic illness glasses and I can't take them off.  My experiences with a disability have shaped my perspective and personality irrevocably.  That's why I'm okay with describing myself as a "chronically ill person" versus a "person with a chronic illness."  My chronic illness is a part of me.  You can't separate the two of us.  It shapes me, I shape it.  You can use any phrasing you like, but I don't insist on person-first language because I view my disability as a part of my personhood.  I also find it funny that we insist of separating people from their disabilities but not from any other identity.  You're not a person with Christianity or a person with blackness or a person with a female gender, because those are all okay identifiers, positive differences.  Somehow disability is not.  Which brings us back to the discussion of diversity.

At some point, I'm hoping we'll acknowledge the value bodily diversity brings to our campus community.  Just like my world expanded talking with an international student from India about the importance of her accent and the daughter of a Presbyterian minister about her religious beliefs, disabled people have the potential to offer valuable insight unique to their identity.  Disability isn't solely something that needs to be cured - it's a perspective we should listen to.  I'm not saying I'd pass up a cure for POTS if offered one.  I'm just saying that I'd rather have people focus on incorporating disability insights and perspectives into campus dialogue than have them feel sorry for the poor sick kids or just flat out ignore our identities.

Disability makes people uncomfortable.  I get it.  This is a recurring theme in this blog.  But that's exactly the reason why we need to create opportunities for expressions of and discussion about it.  Trust me, we've got a lot to add to the community.



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