I anticipate that what I write this week will upset some folks who live with disABILITY or chronic conditions. If you would, “hear me out” until the end of the post. If you still disagree, I can easily “agree to disagree” and even concede that the power of optimism is often the key to overcoming real obstacles.
My main point? Do not tell a person with disABILITY that: YOU CAN DO ANYTHING!
This standard platform statement is normally accompanied by volume and higher pitch, with a pom-pom smacked to the face of anyone not paying attention. Educators like myself sometimes misuse this encouraging statement. Administrators may assume the statement is standard for any mandatory attendance meeting, certain to help liberate the doubtful and unify the group, lighting them on fire with enthusiasm.
Last semester I sat and cried with a student having to drop my class. Like me, she is a TBI survivor. Her dream job was to work in a big hospital and oversee support groups for individuals and families who are experiencing life with traumatic brain injury. She wants the “shingle”, the Ph.D., the training to really make a difference. I believe she will reach her goal. She will reach her goal after a longer road than most. There will be setbacks. There will be obstacles. I shared with her that it took me 16 years and a lot of outright stubbornness to finish school. Accommodations made the attempt more equitable but honestly, I shared, “it took not giving up and recognizing my pathway to goal was a longer one”.
I have had short-term mentors tell me YOU CAN DO ANYTHING! (My long-term mentors had a more realistic approach). However, pom-poms, enthusiasm, and genuine hopefulness will never:
… allow me to hear normally.
… walk without a limp.
… have vertigo-free days.
… help me be as sharp at the end of the day as I am at the first.
… keep me from needing more sleep than others.
… prevent me from ever falling again.
… alleviate my communication challenges.
… prevent me from feeling isolated and left out occasionally.
… stop the loss of vision in my right eye brought about by 11 concussions.
… interrupt every single panic attack.
… defeat persistent depressive disorder.
… keep me from missing my Mom, the primary REALIST in my life.
Frankly, there are some things I CANNOT do. Any successes or “wins” are the result of stubborn persistence. Any recognitions or awards are from finding a different way to accomplish the same tasks. Many “end results” were not something originally targeted. There are things I CANNOT do and tasks I will NEVER be able to do. Instead, I have learned to set my sights on something obtainable. I have learned to align my goals with things that are possible. I have even learned to dream and “pin my hopes on” goals that are doable for even one such as I. In the end, most of us aspire to make a difference. If you find yourself looking around at the place your training, hard work, and experience have landed you thinking, “Well gee. This was a major detour but gosh darn it! I’m happy and I’m making a difference!”
Perhaps the big DIFFERENCE we make was something outside our imagination originally. Reality redirected our purpose with an unexpected detour. Yet here you are, thriving…influencing… and KILLIN’ IT! Having a sense of real purpose looks good on EVERYONE.
I have talked with students and colleagues hesitant to ask for some extra time or an equitable accommodation because they fear being judged that their performance is only possible through props others do not need. Y’all? There is a heck of a lot of difference between equitable accommodations and “hand holding”. This photo says it all:
I received an email from a follower of Hearing Elmo around Christmas. They are on disability, with limited transportation and even more limited opportunities. They shared that at times they are discouraged because they feel limited in what they can do. But folks? The opportunities this reader has are golden, the lives they touch are valuable. They consider their purpose and mission to advocate, educate, and touch just one life at a time. They support and encourage LGBTQ+ young adults with disability and act as a sounding board, a shoulder to cry on, and are a stout champion to a truly marginalized group.
Are you an abled administrator, director, co-worker, or friend? I encourage you to use realistic encouragement and language as you lovingly support the folks in your life who have special challenges to overcome. Having YOU helps them overcome. Be careful not to balk at a seemingly unrealistic goal. If people with disability are anything y’all, they are realists! If you are blessed with an invitation to chart a path alongside someone who is determined, then LISTEN, research, encourage, and advocate on their behalf.
A well-meaning friend and I had our behinds parked on a bench on campus catching up with each other. Some geese flew overhead, flying in a perfect “V” and heading South for the winter. My friend said, “Wow, what a racket!”
I grinned at her and said, “Well I don’t hear anything!”
Abashed, she said, “Well at least you can see them, right?”
I said, “Sure! And I do LISTEN with my EYES sometimes!”
However, unless a big ol’ goose comes waddling up to my side and honks right in the direction of my cochlear implant, I’m not gonna hear it’s unique sound y’all. This doesn’t mean that I do not have a purpose since I cannot hear a goose honk from high above while flying in formation. My disAbilities make me uniquely qualified and effective to make a difference in the lives of those in Denise Portis’ sphere of influence. Y’all have a sphere too. Manage it. Own it. Thrive. Because all of us are pretty…
L. Denise Portis, Ph.D.
2023 Hearing Loss Journal