I saw someone with an intellectual disability stand up for himself today. He spoke right up to a clerk who ignored him in preference for someone else, "I was here first," he said. The clerk was taken aback and muttered, "fuckin' retard." The man I saw left for only a second and then came back with the manager. He was crying but when and when he spoke he fought to keep his voice calm. He explained what happened. The manager asked if anyone else had seen and heard what happened. I said that I had, two other people spoke up as well. The manager asked for all our patience as he pulled the clerk out and had someone come to replace him. The fellow with the intellectual disability, who was, in reality, the next to be served, was the next served. It was over.
The fellow standing next to me said, "He must have an amazing mother." It was easy for me to agree, he must have.
This incident happened well over a month ago. I never wrote about it. Every time I started, I felt like I wasn't far enough away from it to understand it yet. I don't always get the stories in my life, when they happen. I don't always realize a story has happened until long after it has been told. So sometimes I wait and sometimes understanding comes.
Why is it that we always tend to give over the success of people with intellectual disabilities to others?
If a woman stood up for herself, we'd think her a powerful woman. We wouldn't immediately think to attribute her strength to another.
If a gay person stood up for himself, we'd think him a powerful person. We wouldn't immediately think to attribute his strength to another.
We see powerful people all the time and though we may have a vague sense of the support system around them, or of their history of being supported by others, but what we see are powerful people.
Isn't it just possible that the amazing person in the story above is the fellow with the disability? Isn't it just possible that he taught himself how to be powerful, how to use his voice, how to advocate against injustice? Isn't it just possible that he drew on his own resources to give him the strength he needed to face down a bigot? Isn't it just possible that the achievement is his - even if he had a wonderful mother or good support staff or the best teachers in the world? Isn't it possible for a person with a disability to have an achievement that belongs only to them?
I heard a mother once, when watching her daughter give a speech at a self advocate conference, a speech that was well delivered, when her daughter, who was standing beside her, received a compliment, she responded before her daughter could speak, "I worked so hard to get her to where she is today."
Maybe mom did. Maybe mom worked really, really hard.
But is the accomplishment hers?
Does it belong to her?
I get a lot of encouragement and support from Joe regarding my nerves about public speaking. Even with that support, even with the fact that I need him to be in the room with me when I'm giving a new talk because I'm calmer with him there, I feel safer. Even with all that. I am still the one who gives the speech. No one ever attributes the success (or failure) to anyone else. What's mine is mine.
Perhaps it's time we started seeing people with intellectual disabilities as capable of owning their own success stories, owning their own growth and development, owning their own adulthood. Perhaps it's time we stop taking from them the things that make them powerful, independent people. Perhaps it's time we recognize that it's our need to feel valued for what we do that disallows people with disabilities the experience of feeling valued for what they've achieved.
He spoke powerfully, he responded with courage, he confronted bigotry and he did it with calm dignity. He is a powerful man. He acted in such a way that the store is now a safer place for all people with disabilities.
He did that.
With his courage.
With his determination.
With his power.
My daughter is autistic. My husband and I work really, really hard to support her and help her grow into her strengths, but I can't imagine either one of us taking credit for her success.
I will say, though, that no one learns to advocate for themselves in a vacuum. We all learn it from someone. And we learn different methods from different people. My mother's method--the one she actively taught me--is not one that matches my personality. The same is true for many of my friends. But the way I advocate for myself is drawn from all of the influences I've encountered, and then applied in a way that is unique to myself.
In all fairness, though, couldn't that guy in the store also have had an amazing father? My daughter does. Rick Hoyt does. If we're open to acknowledging the support of others, we should be open to the idea that support is not limited to one parent. In fact, it's not limited to parents at all. I'm teaching my daughter to advocate for herself, my husband is teaching her to do that, her aides are teaching her. She'll learn from all of us, select the things she feels comfortable with, and apply them in the way that works for her.
That will be her accomplishment. But she won't get there on her own, because none of us does.
I was going to say that - his accomplishment, not his mother's - but you went ahead and do it.
It was hard for him. AND the manager should have believed HIM instantly (why would he make such a story up?) and removed the employee. Still not there, if he had to get confirmation from other people before believing.
If a businessman in a suit had made the same claim, he would have been instantly believed, and it wouldn't have mattered (the customer is always right) if he spoke the truth. The presumption would have been with him by default.
That's the missing piece.
I do see your point, and it's well taken. I think, though, that this kind of crediting of others for one's success also happens to women, people of color, and other groups. Just recently in the Olympics, for example, swimmer Katinka Hosszu smashed the world record in the 400 meter individual medley, and the NBC announcer called her husband "the man responsible" for her win. It's a frustrating fact that people in all kinds of marginalized groups are often seen as reliant on others for their success.
Thanks, again, Dave. Reading your blog helps me support others immensely, just by reading your stories, because I think, "What would I have done in that situation?". I realized I would have reacted by leaping to this man's defense, when he was perfectly capable of handling it on his own. I just want you to know that these situations you present keep me aware and make me think.
Not that the accomplishment should be attributed to anyone else (because all of the things you and others said) but he also could have been taught self-advocacy from other people with disabilities. We do tend to have that effect on each other. Countless folks have been encouraged by Laura Hershey's "You Get Proud By Practicing" (http://www.cripcommentary.com/poetry.html#PROUD) for example. So perhaps he had an amazing, disabled, mentor!
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