I spoke, yesterday, at the 8th annual A.C.E. conference - which is a conference for self advocates with disabilities. I'd been asked to do an inclusive keynote for both people with disabilities and their staff. These are way more difficult than you can imagine, with such a jumble of learning styles, with a need for the message to be inclusive, with the need to leave no one behind, it's way more work, if those goals are taken seriously, than you can imagine.
Well, I decided to go 'full tilt boogie' and do something radical. I wanted to talk openly about disability and difference and bring an aspect of 'pride in difference, pride in disability, pride in diversity' message. To people with intellectual disabilities much of this is new. Many are fed on the lie: we're all the same. Well, we aren't all the same. It's difference that gets targeted by bullies, by teasers, by name callers, by passersby who stare. It's difference that changes attitudes, closes doors, limits options, feeds bigotry. I believe that the only way to confront the bias without is to confront the bias within. So, I was going to take the chance and say, I'm disabled, most of you are disabled and all of us are different. Get used to it. Get over it. Come to value it.
I had four slogans that I wanted people to yell out at different parts of the stories I told:
I am what I am.
I know what I want.
I have something to offer
and one more for good luck,
I can't be who I want to be until I'm comfortable with who I am.
So, I hit the ground running (obviously a metaphor) and waited to see how people responded to an up front, out of the closet, disabled speaker who mentions the human condition that dare not speak its name - intellectual disability. Well, the floor didn't fall out under me. The audience didn't rise and tackle me. Some faces looked at me in shock but most looked at me with a ... finally, FINALLY, we're telling the truth. It was great.
Afterwards several people with disabilities came up to tell me stories, to thank me for my talk, to say nice things. I was in a rush because I had to drive a long way to the next hotel, so I couldn't talk long. One fellow, hung back a bit, but just before I left, he came up and tapped me gently on the shoulder. He had tears in his eyes, 'It's hard for me to say that I'm ...' and he couldn't say another word. I said, 'It gets easier.' He nodded and I rolled away, I stopped and looked back and him and called out, 'And it gets better.' A tear flowed down his cheek, he didn't brush it away, he just turned and walked back into the room.
I'm glad I had the courage to say what I wanted to say.
I'm even gladder that he had the ultimate courage, to begin to recognize who he is - he's now on the journey to self hood, he's on the journey home.