Inspiration Not Required
Because we employ individuals with developmental disabilities, the staff of the Meadows is frequently told that the work we do is “inspiring”. The people who pay us this particular compliment are just being kind. They mean well, and we appreciate that. However, the truth is, we are just average men and women who have chosen this field and who are doing our best to assist those with intellectual and physical challenges, while at the same time earning a pay check. We are nothing more or less.
It is the same with the adults we employ. Although they have significant issues that can make their daily lives more difficult in a variety of ways, they are still just people who are doing the best they can to live their lives to the fullest. They want to be understood and accepted for who they are as a person. They do not want to be thought of exclusively in terms of their disability.
When they come to work, just as in other areas of their lives, they are not trying to inspire anyone. They are not attempting to be heroic. They are not making a conscience effort to be courageous. They are not being anything other than themselves. They are just a person who happens to have Down syndrome, epilepsy, autism, cerebral palsy or any number of other conditions that human beings live with.
You only have to spend a small amount of time with them to realize that they do not focus on their circumstances. They consider themselves to be sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends, employees, coworkers, citizens - just about anything other than a person with a disability. We are the ones who limit them by believing their challenges hold them back. We are the ones who think their IQ score defines them. We are the ones who see the diagnosis instead of the person.
We are the problem.
The adults we employ spend their lives dealing with the myths and misconceptions that many people continue to embrace concerning intellectual challenges. The erroneous belief that they can’t learn, can’t work or can’t lead full lives, creates significant stumbling blocks to achieving those very things.
So, when someone encounters a person with a disability holding down a job, they see a man or woman who has exceeded the low expectations of society. Therefore, they feel inspired as they appreciate an accomplishment that was wrongly assumed to be impossible.
Obviously, living with a disability is something a human being has no choice in. It happens, you deal with it, and you live your life. But when others make it the focal point of your existence, it adds an unnecessary burden that causes misunderstanding and bias. This happens, not because of the person’s disability, but rather because of our response to it. Our behavior towards those individuals is a result of our failure to accept them as a person because we mistakenly consider them only in terms of their diagnosis.
But when we learn to think of them as complete human beings, we no longer expect them to inspire us.
Each of us is a complex mixture of intellect and emotion that combine to create the individual personalities that make us unique. We are not one dimensional beings. We are not defined by one single aspect of our humanity. Therefore, it is not right to judge people based solely on their disabilities. They are far more than their particular challenges.
The fact that we need to find them inspiring is a reflection of our thinking. Either our feelings are couched in a sense of guilt because we perceive our lives to be easier and to require less effort, or we believe these individuals are bravely trying to be like those who do not have challenges. That assumption, whether we will admit it or not, is based on our opinion that we are superior to them. Although it may not be intentional, such an attitude is, none the less, demeaning.
While it is true that people with disabilities want the same things in life that everyone else does, that doesn’t mean they are comparing themselves to others. So why do we feel like we have the right to engage in comparisons?
No one expects you to be inspiring, so it is not fair to expect inspiration from someone with a disability. They are human beings, which means they will sometimes fail. They will make mistakes, and they will behave in ways that are not appropriate for a particular situation. That is what we all do. Why should they be held to a higher standard than the rest of us? Why should they be expected to move us emotionally, when we ourselves often struggle to make it through our day?
Feeling inspired is fleeting and it only makes us feel temporarily good. But when we treat a person with a developmental disability the way we should, it makes everyone involved feel great, and it provides long lasting benefits.
The undeniable truth is that no one is superior or inferior. That is why it would be so much better for all of us if we would accept each other as we are, no matter what our challenges.
A person with a developmental disability does not want us to be inspired by the fact they are living their life. They want us to treat them as an equal so they can live the life they deserve.