The mighty can fall in the face of a simple question
Years ago,I was at a conference giving a session and then tromped off, like everyone else, excitedly to hear the keynote speaker. He was and still is a very famous guy and has accomplished much. His talk was brilliant, funny, insightful. He had to stop to absorb round after round of applause. As it happened he finished maybe 5 or 6 minutes early. The MC said, 'Ah we have time for one maybe two questions.' There was that horrible pause as no one put there hand up. Then one fellow, a guy in a wheelchair called, 'here' ... 'here'. He'd had his hand up but not been seen. After acknowledgment he asked, 'You've achieved wonderful things for you, and that's good. But can you name something that you personally have done to make the world better, easier for people with disabilities. Something you did, not your organization, not your friends, you ... what have you done?'
The speaker was stopped. There was a long pause and finally the MC said, 'Well, we need to move along, with the day's agenda.' The whole conference changed. I said to Joe that I never want to get caught like that, ever. I always want to be doing something in the 'now' that I can report on if asked, if challenged.
Then yesterday in Camp Hill in PA, I was introduced with a wonderfully kind introduction and I didn't even notice that it was an introduction that, atypically, did not mention what I did or what I have achieved. I'm OK with that, the introduction was less formal and more fun. But when it came time for questions, a hand went up at the back, I called for the question. A man with a disability stood up. His question, 'What do you do? How do you help people?'
I understood right then the paralysis that hit that speaker years ago. I froze for a second. Then I gave an answer and half way through the answer, I realized I was using the language of lecture, the non-disabled people would understand, not him. Who was I justifying myself to. So at the end, I acknowledged my mistake. 'I said that in too many words, to be clear, I help people to be safe, I help people to have good relationships and I help people to feel good about themselves.' He nodded and said thanks.
I took a deep breath.
Two different conferences set apart by years. In both, people with disability called the speaker to account. That voice, the authentic voice of someone with a disability, that's the voice that asks the ultimate question of all of us who say we serve ... what have you done ....