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Seen and Not Heard or Heard and Not Seen

Written by: Michael S. True, M.Ed

This article is copy protected and should only be reproduced by permission of the author. For information contact me at: .

     How does one have a disability and then not have a disability? How does one claim all is equal, while advocating for a leveled playing field? Why do persons with disabilities often get seen and not heard or heard and not seen?

     Recently, I read an article, (and it is by no means the first), in which a person advocating on behalf of all persons with disabilities, criticized and soundly denounced the concept of planned "disability awareness" events. The argument against these events was simple: These simulation events evoke pity in the non-disabled participants.

     It saddens and confuses me that so many have become so cynical and so polarized in the world today. From the highest levels of government and from many religious institutions, "US vs. THEM" propaganda is being spread far and wide. And sadly, this way of thinking is becoming socially acceptable in the one nation that claimed its tolerance for diversity was the basis for its existence.

     For the rich man, the poor woman on the streets represents another financial burden. For the homeless, disenfranchised woman, the rich represent the essence of greed and misused power. To the working class stiff, management is likened to slave masters, demanding all and giving little in return. Conversely, those in management see most workers as poorly motivated, poorly trained, and demanding more and more in return for less and less productivity. At least this is what we are being told.

     I could go on and on about various ethnic groups, nationalities, religious factions, and the sexual and political entities out there competing for attention. Each of these groups gets labeled by another, "bad, wrong, undesirable, evil", and worse. Why do humans do this to each other?

     In order for one group to feel strong must it make another group out to be weak or defective? In order to be right, must someone else be wrong? The dynamics of discrimination goes back to the very beginnings of man's social existence on the planet. But has this made the world a better place?

     And now, we hear talk of so-called disability rights advocates telling us that we must not interact with the non-disabled because they might pity us! Is this based on reality or another misconception based on paranoia and mistrust? Should our fears diminish our opportunities?

     I have been a teacher for over a quarter of a century. In the course of my own education and teaching experience I have learned the importance of promoting curiosity, "Inquiring minds want to know…" To increase understanding we must risk sharing our unique human experiences, including our vulnerabilities, our needs, and yes, even our dreams of a better world. Honest dialogue is the key necessary to unlock a treasure chest of new and useful ideas. Thinking that can later be translated into positive action is what we are after, right?

     So how does one get heard without being seen? Disability awareness, in my opinion, is essential to understanding. Even a brief period of being blindfolded or having to navigate a city sidewalk in a wheelchair can give a non-disabled person a sense of an alternate reality, one that might not otherwise be considered. However, simulations such as this cannot have the same impact without real life stories being presented by the person who is experiencing these limitations on a daily basis. This information clarifies and underscores the need for laws being passed to reduce obstacles, increase opportunities, and diminish discrimination, for instance.

     As an educator, it has been my responsibility to motivate children and adults to learn things that they might otherwise have not experienced. As does any good teacher, I accentuate the positive, the benefits of new knowledge. And, in most cases, I use demonstrations, role-playing, and yes, even simulations to increase understanding.

     By taking the position that we might instill pity in those we are able to educate, it makes me wonder about the motivation of the educators, not the students. Do doctors and nurses pity their patients, lawyers their clients, or business men and women their customers? No, of course not! The knowledge they have been given through their education has provided them direction in their occupations. They have learned to act on behalf of their clients, to find the solutions needed to better serve the public. If the outcome were significantly different, I would be more inclined to be suspicious of the system.

     I am definitely not advocating for those who would purposely characterize any man or woman, boy or girl as being "defective" in a bid for public pity or monetary gain. Tearing down stereotypes is what awareness is all about. Ending the exploitation of any individual or group must continue to be a primary concern.

     But we cannot afford to get bogged down in our efforts to protect our public image or ourselves. First and foremost, we must understand that we all have strengths and limitations. This is not a curse, but the nature of being human! We must continue to celebrate our differences as much as our similarities.

     Finally, many who seek to do away with activities that enhance awareness sing a similar tune. "We must find another way of doing the same thing." Personally, I wonder if we can truly afford to stop educating people until we have found that "better way." I say, present your alternatives, your solutions and tell me about the problems they will solve. In the mean time, do not degrade the efforts of those who seek to promote your cause. Some folks are trying to be seen and heard at the same time!

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