Your Future Self Hopes Your Present Self Can Handle The Truth

A photo of a yellow parking space marked with an image of a person in a wheelchair.

Reality doesn’t care if you believe it. – Boba Fett, The Mandalorian

One of my old friends was a relentlessly cheerful lady who appeared often on television, radio, newspapers, talking about her business. You know that game where people try to be the last person to know the score of the Super Bowl? She was like that with Life. She didn’t want to know. The world was filled with facts that clouded her sunny nature. “I’m just happier this way,” she trilled.

Willful avoidance of what Al Gore called An Inconvenient Truth seems to be a common human condition. Working with the Harnisch Foundation’s new grantee partner RespectAbility reminded me how blithely most people cruise through life, unable or unwilling to face the inconvenient truth about disability: you’re probably going to spend some portion of your life “disabled.” It’s practically guaranteed, statistically speaking.

Yet we have built a world designed to cordon off at least 20% of the potential work force. People with physical or mental limitations conquer obstacle courses every day just trying to live.

Four decades ago, I learned about the People First movement. It was revolutionary for its time, as people with disabilities demanded that we change our language. Instead of “crippled victim of muscular dystrophy confined to a wheelchair” – which was typical of the way our language reflected pity or “inspiration,” – they wanted “Named Person (because “People First”), who uses a wheelchair because of muscular dystrophy.” And they didn’t want us to refer to any of these conditions unless they were directly related to the topics at hand. No victims, no saints, no pity, no inspo-porn.

I was young and did not use adaptive devices (unless you count the 4” heels I wore to appear taller or the wig I wore for a consistent appearance, hmmm), but I’d broken enough bones to get it when they said that everyone is “Temporarily Abled.”

If you need glasses to see, you’re using an adaptive device. Eventually you might need something to help you hear, to help you walk, dentures to help you chew, maybe you’ll need someone to help you with everything you currently do for yourself.

Think about how many members of your own family have been disabled, even on a temporary basis. A torn tendon limits mobility and dexterity, vision may be temporarily clouded by surgery or injury, CV19 can impair cognitive function.

At least these days most of us recognize when something is blatantly disrespectful to people with disabling conditions. Yet we hide from the truth that “disabilities” are only disabilities because we have not designed a physical world, systems, and attitudes that accommodate the entire family of humankind with its vast variety of bodies and brains.

Certainly we’re doing better as a society, faint praise considering how drastically we fall short of creating equal access for all. Like my willfully ignorant old friend, we’re happier not knowing how bad it still is. Oh, and don’t use ableist language to describe this! We haven’t turned a blind eye! We haven’t turned a deaf ear!

Simply put, we flat-out haven’t been paying attention. And since we’re all going to wish we’d fixed everything before we needed an accessible world, let’s get started.