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There was once a young girl with a learning disability. She was quiet, socially awkward, and kept to herself but was kind and intelligent. One day a girl in class she liked talked to her for the first time. The young girl was ecstatic. However, the following day that same classmate came up to her and said I hate you and walked away. What is hate? The dictionary says its a tense or passionate dislike of someone. Yet, is that all it is? It’s a way to put someone down, to build confidence, to get your way.

A teenage boy is bullied at school and struggles with his classes. He is always worried and anxious about everything. His ticks and obsessive-compulsive behaviors interfere. His grades drop and he wants to drop out of high school. Yet, he did not quit school due to a single teacher’s devotion to him. He followed his passion. He received his masters and became one of the top employees at his workplace.

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

People are not very open about suicidal ideation. It can be embarrassing and shameful for some. People with emotional/mental issues tend to cover up their suffering. They do not want others to see it or be a burden. People will suffer in silence and fight it the best they can. When people are suicidal they hide it, but there are signs. Professionals are always looking for these signs, knowing that right before suicide; people are calm and happy because they know they will no longer suffer. People often misinterpret this calmness and happiness as the person doing better. Unfortunately, by this point it is usually too late.

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

A large part of disability etiquette is policing your words. It is about being respectful and courteous in what you say. It is very easy to use the wrong words, to phrase a statement in the wrong way. A small slip up, a small shift in connotation can drastically alter a message. At the same time it is important to police your reaction to those words and phrases. Everyone has their own unique perspective of their disability and stigma that influences their reactions.

The disability community is very aware of the negative effects of words and phrasing. The “normal” community, with some exceptions, is often unaware of this effect. Sometimes normally harmless words and phrases become insults to those with disabilities. The person-first versus disability-first argument is one of many phrasing etiquette issues. It is an issue of possession I-am versus I-have. Using ‘I am’ (ex. I am autistic) puts the disability in possession of the person. Using ‘I have’ (ex. I have autism) puts the person in possession of the disability. Putting person first also places the individual higher in value than his/her disability.

Two words that have made a small shift in connotation are disturbed and suffering. The word, disturbed, is a description of emotional distress. However, some are applying the word as a identity label. A person’s identity is defined by emotional distress. The word, suffering, is a way to describe that a individual is experiencing harmful effects. However, some are applying it as a possession label. The person’s suffering is in control of his/her life.

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

You wake up and wonder whether you’ll survive the day. Can you endure another day of pain and suffering? How much will you sacrifice? Will you be able to achieve the days goals? Do you go out into the world or stay in your safe haven? You put on your mask, hiding your emotions away and head out into the world. You wonder if your mask will slip and people will see your vulnerability. You hope someone will see through to the real you, the you crying out for help. Survival is becoming harder, the mask slips, your shield cracks. Your emotions are overflowing. You are exhausted and irritable. You can’t take in anymore. The dam has broken.

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

Everything and everyone is connected. The world is an intricate interconnected web of emotions, thoughts, actions, and words. Each and every person affects others, who affects others, who affects many more.

Humans are full of contradictions. One of the greatest being our fragility and resiliency. Humans are the weakest and most vulnerable species as a baby. Our bodies go through drastic changes during puberty. Humans can easily break down and lose hope. A single, small injury can kill us. Despite this, humans survive infancy. Humans can survive death defying feats. We will fight to our death for what we believe in. Humans continue down the hectic path of life and we survive.

The human race is capable of extreme benevolence and extreme malevolence. The human race should not be destroyed through its own doing. Humans have tremendous potential to become an impressive, unrelenting force of nature that is capable of extraordinary acts of goodwill.

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

Consequences
A little girl with autism was on a long car ride across many states with her mom and grandma. There were no exits in the area. They could not stop because she might run out into traffic. The girl was tired, hungry, overwhelmed and started to break down. She could not express her frustrations and needs because of language difficulties. Her mom was unable to calm her down. The girl hit and scratched her mom. By the end of the trip her mom’s arm was covered in scratches and bruises.

How would the mom explain the bruises and scratches? What insulting remarks would they endure in regards to the girl’s behavior? What if the mom decided to risk stopping? Would the girl have run out into the street? How would they survive even greater stigma and the repercussions of the girl running out into traffic?

What If
A young girl with autism goes to the renaissance festival with her family. She was very happy and excited. However, an hour later she became overwhelmed. The crowds and loud noises were causing sensory overload. She struggled to process everything going on. Her stress and anxiety levels shot through the roof. Her dad took her to a quiet, secluded area.

What if things didn’t turn out well? What if she had a meltdown? What would people think? Would the police or social services be called? Would the family suffer injustice stemming from stigma and ignorance?

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

Do or do not disclose your disability to your employer, a predicament that has haunted people with disabilities to this day. Most advise that you do not disclose except when necessary to perform the job. Sometimes it is not necessary but it would be helpful. How much do you disclose? Do you have to include specifics? It depends on the situation. People are concerned about disability discloser. Yet people don’t think that we are forcing people to hide who they are. A disability is a part of who a person is. They shouldn’t have to hide that for fear of retaliation. A person doesn’t have to worry about disclosing that they are “normal.” They can work without fear of retaliation. Why can’t we accept the “normal” and the disabled as equal partners in the workplace?

No Disclosure
Expectation: normal, meet expected
Reality: don’t meet
Interpretation: incompetent
Reason: slacker, uninterested

Disclosure
Expectation: abnormal, achieve less
Reality: meet or exceed
Interpretation: “competent”
Reason: less than, stupid

Hope
Expectation: individual ability
Reality: meet or exceed
Interpretation: competent
Reason: different, not less

Laura MacKenzie loves to learn about the world around her. She adores animals and has a dog and cat. She is always observing, thinking, and analyzing. Her goal is to become a police consultant/instructor on community relations and disability. Laura is enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS.

As a student currently pursuing my Master’s Degree, I get a lot of the same questions over and over again, from friends, from family, and from people I’ve just met.  “Are you in school?”, “Where are you going to school?” and finally, “What are you studying?” My response usually provokes something along the lines of “What’s that?  Is that, like, working with disabled people?”

With adults, I usually tell them that it’s examining disability from a sociological viewpoint and leave it at that.  With kids and teens, I explain that it’s looking at how disabled people are treated in society.  I’m pretty sure most people have never even thought about disabled people or how we’re treated.  There’s a lot of conversation around sexism and racism in today’s age, even heterosexism (more often called homophobia), but not so much around ableism.

I’ve known since I was in high school, ever since I discovered that disability studies was a field of study, that I wanted to do disability studies for the rest of my life.  Unfortunately, since the Bachelor’s program in Disability Studies at CUNY didn’t exist yet, I was forced to major in what I thought was the closest thing to it – special education.  However, I didn’t realize that special education unfortunately had no place for someone who was actually disabled.  After a lot of discrimination, I left college with no teaching certification, disappointed and disillusioned, and more ready for disability studies than ever.

As I discovered during my time in college, most of the dialogue about disability is dominated by parents, teachers, caregivers, and other people in auxiliary positions.  Disability studies changes all that.  Disability studies as a whole confronts the prejudice of those fields (like special education) head on.  In disability studies, disability is not a problem, a diagnosis, or a “special need.”  It is a complex social phenomenon, intersecting with the odd individualism of our bodies.  That’s why disability studies is so important.  It gives disabled people our own voices and own agency – something that is sorely lacking in other discussions of disability.

Moreover, on a personal level, I have a passion for school now that I didn’t before.  Even when I’m tired, or sick, or just don’t feel like dragging myself to class, once I sit down in that classroom and listen to my professor and classmates, I feel exhilarated.  You would think a 2 ½ hour class would pass achingly slowly, but it usually zooms by, because I’m interested in the material.  I feel welcomed at CUNY SPS.  I’m a part of a community, something I never really felt during my undergraduate studies.  Most of all, I love listening to my classmates’ stories – because in this field, everyone has a story to tell.

Everyone has a story, and I bet you do too.  With one in five Americans identifying as having a disability, we are all closer to disability than we think.  I shared mine, now it’s your turn.  What’s your story?  Share with me in the comments!

Cara Liebowitz is a disabled activist and blogger currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Disability Studies at CUNY SPS. She serves on the board of DREAM (Disability Rights, Education, Activism and Mentoring), an organization aimed at expanding opportunities for higher education students with disabilities. Cara was also one of the founding members of the I Am Norm Campaign, a national campaign promoting inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can read her blog at www.thatcrazycrippledchick.blogspot.com.

Dating With Disabilities by Keith R. Murfee-DeConcini originally appeared on the YAI Network’s blog Voice.

At the end of my last blog, which was about Seeing Beyond Disability, I mentioned a social connection of mine that might progress. Since that post, my relationship has done just that, and I have spent some time thinking about dating and disability.

Online dating has made it easier for people in general to meet each other. However, living in this day and age of online connections, a double-edge sword presents itself. Every day — the ability to be more socially connected or to be more lonely.

Someone can be anyone online—they can be true representations of who they are in person, or they can become a digitalized recreation into some “ideal” image of themselves. As such, they can find and connect with a vast audience that is extremely diverse. Nowadays, people could meet each other in ways not possible a decade ago and in some instances, the internet can be the only way for certain people to meet.

Online connection however doesn’t always meet our social needs or ward off loneliness. Loneliness can feel like one of the worst experiences in life, and hearing well-meaning sayings such as, “You must learn to love yourself before anyone else can,” can only dull the often uncontrollable ache, especially if you hear it time and time again. Learning to love oneself is a lifelong journey after all.

Of course, there can always be a combination of social engagement and loneliness at the same time, especially for people with disabilities, who are often socially marginalized from their peers who don’t have disabilities, or even from each other. There may be more social inclusion and acceptance through online connection today, but isolation, suspicion of and stigmatization against people with disabilities is still a problem throughout society.

Meeting Amber

I met my partner, Amber, through an online dating/social networking site. Soon after we connected, I proceeded to totally ignore her for a week when I went on a meditation retreat. You know, just how all the dating guide books tell you a great relationship should start!

Given that it is the start of a relationship, the “honeymoon phase” as it’s often called, can be very passionate and exciting—with a natural amount of uncertainty. There are a lot of hopes, fears and expectations during this “discovery stage” that may or may not come true.

At the beginning of a new relationship there is hope that the other person will accept, understand, like, and maybe even love us; the hope that they will turn out to be who we want them to be in terms of sharing our values, sense of humor, ways to spend time, etc. There are fears that neither of us will live up to these hopes. There is the expectation that we’ll give each other a fair shot at finding out if we’re a good match. This is a time of exploring our differences and the things we share in common. How does disability impact this?

When one partner has a disability and the other does not, which is the case for Amber and me, things can get very interesting: especially considering that we will probably have to contend with, at one point or another, not only what we are learning and feeling about each other; but with opinions and questions from others that will make us cringe.

Questions about my voice will undoubtedly come up and some people will stare. Although it hasn’t happened yet, friends might ask Amber why she’s with me because in their opinion, she could do so much better. After all, why would anyone want to settle for “less” than they deserve?

While this may be a common experience for anyone becoming a new couple who endures criticism of their partner from friends and family, it can be magnified for people with disabilities, who are often judged on things besides their character, values and other traits that might make them good partners. Disability is an easy target as the deciding factor of the potential success or failure of a relationship, most often failure.

These things may or may not happen, but I have faith that if two people have inner strength, level heads about them and good communication between them, then love has a chance to endure.

Cary and Melissa 

Cary and Melissa are a testament to the idea of steadfast dedication in a relationship. They have been together for two years, and from them I have learned that each phase of a relationship has its ups and downs.

Several years ago, I met Cary at American University in Washington DC while taking a music course. We met in class when the teacher pointed us out to each other and the fact that we both had Cerebral Palsy—in front of the entire class. While that introduction was an unsavory experience, it sparked a lifelong friendship.

He and I shared many things in common besides our Cerebral Palsy, chief among them our fondness for music—and our dating woes. We always seemed to get led on by women, only to get our hopes dashed for a genuine connection. I know that this type of “leading on” or “being played” happens to people without disabilities as well and that guys do it to women, too. People with disabilities, however, are often more easily dismissed. I talked to a woman on the phone that I had met online through a dating site and the following day I asked her through a text message if my voice was what she had expected; she replied: “I expected your voice to be as handsome as you are.” I am still trying to figure out if that is a compliment or not.

Cary had a number of short relationships that ended in frustration and heartbreak before he met Melissa, who had gone through similar experiences. Melissa did not have a disability, but like Cary, longed for a real and meaningful connection. They met online through a dating site and started talking. Cary mentioned on his profile that he had Cerebral Palsy and Melissa, who had no idea what that was, looked it up. She was curious about him, having been attracted to his sense of humor, and decided to take a chance by meeting him in person. That was over two years ago.

I had lunch with Cary and Melissa the other day and, after sharing their story, Cary said to me, “I think people with disabilities often have idealistic expectations of what it means to be in a relationship and what I have learned is that being in a relationship is a lot of hard work.” Melissa smiled and nodded in agreement.

Things are not always easy for Cary and Melissa. Sometimes when they are out, they experience stigma and downright discrimination. One time at a bar, a man got up from his seat to go to the bathroom and when he returned to find Cary in his seat, he said to the friend he was with, “I can’t believe you gave my seat to a cripple!”

This made both Melissa and Cary understandably angry and reminded them that ignorance and fear of difference unfortunately persist.

The Disability Factor

The dating dilemma that many people with disabilities find themselves in, more often than not, is that they are not given a chance to date. People without disabilities are simply not open to it. As one of my cousins pointed out to me the other night, “When people think about dating and the dating culture, they don’t really think about people with disabilities, and if they do, it is often how to exclude them from dating. The thought of them [people with disabilities] dating, makes us [people without disabilities] uncomfortable.” While this is not always the case, it is common enough to mention.

In some ways I understand the notion behind the fear of dating someone with a disability. There’s the common misconception that the partner without a disability will end up being a caregiver more than an equal partner, and the view that disability is a weakness rather than a strength. A former partner of mine said that she thought that women were probably intimidated by my disability and what it implied about my needs as a partner, and that they did not know how to get past their fearful reaction.

Having a disability should not be a deterrent to emotional connection, especially in the romantic sense. A person with a disability might want to date someone who also has a disability, for reasons such as mutual attraction and shared understanding. Or they might want to date someone who does not have a disability for the same or other reasons.

The common assumption that two people should date because they both have disabilities, or that they are dating because they both have disabilities, is very annoying. It’s like assuming that two people who are tall, for example, should date or are dating because they are tall. A person with a disability should have the freedom to date whomever they chose—and experience the same risks of heartbreak and love and everything in between—just like everyone else.

To be desired and to feel loved is one of the cornerstones of what it means to be human, and it should be available to everyone, regardless of difference, be it an accent, walking style, learning style or something else. Humans have had this very unhealthy obsession with sameness for far too long, and any difference has been met with fear and has been demonized as a result.

Yes, to be in a relationship with someone with a disability requires taking a chance and giving that person a chance. But the same is true in regards to any relationship. Dating someone with a disability may or may not have more, or maybe different challenges, but that does not make the relationship or the partner any less worthy of taking a risk and trying to make a meaningful connection.

It takes strong people to look beyond disability, and to have the emotional fortitude to look within to see that we all have talents, limitations and the ability to offer love.

Keith R. Murfee-DeConcini is a graduate student at CUNY School of Professional Studies in its Disability Studies program and a disability advocate. He is also an intern with YAI Network where he regularly contributes to their blog Voice. Born in New York City, he’s lived all over the country. When not in New York, Keith resides in Tucson, Arizona, where he’s getting a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Arizona.

Seeing Beyond Disability by Keith R. Murfee-DeConcini originally appeared on the YAI Network’s blog Voice.

A few months ago, I was having coffee with a friend from CUNY, telling her about this internship and I mentioned the slogan of YAI, “Seeing Beyond Disability.” She took issue with it, commenting that people should not have to see beyond disability, they should just see disability and accept it as a part of the person. Ideally, yes that should happen; however, we do not live in an ideal world. Sometimes people have to see beyond disability first, in order to be able to come back and accept disability.

I remember a few years back, I was having lunch with a very dear friend of mine near Lincoln Center when we saw a couple dressed up, on their way to what we assumed was their prom or some other formal event. What was striking about this couple was the young woman, who was wearing a bright red dress, had a metallic prosthesis for her left leg. She could not have been older than seventeen or eighteen and yet the confidence in the way in which she walked arm in arm with her date was stunning.

In a conversation with another friend, my disability came up and my friend said, “I can’t believe people call you or think of you as disabled! I don’t.” When I asked her what she considered “being disabled” meant, she said she considered it being human. Her answer has stayed with me ever since because that was the first time someone had said something that bold, that it started to shift my view of having a disability to one of having a shared experience in relating to disability, especially in seeing the hidden disabilities in others around us.

I was finishing up a lunch meeting with my pastor in Tucson, Arizona, and as we were walking back to his car, he echoed the same statement of not considering me disabled. Now, it is important to point out that neither of them considers disability as something negative, something that should be feared and avoided. They could see my disability as a part of me, rather than being all of me; which is what most people see when they see a person with a disability. They see only the disability and not the person who happens to have a disability. A disability is a part of a person but it does not make up the person.

I like to meet new people whenever possible and recently a close connection was formed through a social networking site. When the topic of my voice came up, through promoting last week’s blog post, I asked the person if she could get used to my voice, especially if our connection progressed. She said, “Your natural accent is a part of what makes you who you are and that’s beautiful.”

Seeing beyond a disability is not hard to do, it allows a person to see another person’s full potential while being aware of all the parts that make up that person. Seeing beyond is not ignoring. It is about accepting, even if that acceptance is not right away in some cases. So if you are struggling with the “seeing beyond” concept or know someone who is, as a person who has experienced both stigma and acceptance, I offer this advice: Take a risk, see the whole person, and plan to be surprised.

Keith R. Murfee-DeConcini is a graduate student at CUNY School of Professional Studies in its Disability Studies program and a disability advocate. He is also an intern with YAI Network where he regularly contributes to their blog Voice. Born in New York City, he’s lived all over the country. When not in New York, Keith resides in Tucson, Arizona, where he’s getting a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Arizona.