Friday, December 28, 2012

[dis]Ability: An Introspective Look at Ability Awareness

Since taking on this job as social media manager for the Portland State University Kiwanis Camp senior capstone project, I have come to see my ignorance, an ignorance I was aware of but never really motivated to eradicate. Sure, I was “aware” of people with disabilities and thought I could sympathize, but beyond helping out with the occasional fundraiser, my life was never affected by theirs, so I didn't bother to learn. I find it strange now, and, of course, shameful that I settled for false sympathy when I've always believed that the key to happiness is self awareness, and the key to self awareness is learning as much about the world as possible. I have to know about others if I am to know myself. Yet in spite of this belief, I had never thought to learn about the disabled community. I thought I already knew enough, knew what I needed to know for my own purposes.

It's not a great feeling realizing that you've essentially ignored a large portion of the population until something—a job, in my case—forced you to educate yourself. But it is also a relief to know that there is still time to learn, time to become one less person living in ignorance.

That being said, I have also recently come to know that while I have been working to increase and promote disability awareness in myself and others, I had no idea that there was such a thing as ability awareness. To be honest, when I first heard the term, I thought it was a strange euphemism for disability awareness, something “nicer” in a world afraid of political incorrectness. However, it is no euphemism. It is exactly as it sounds: being aware of people's capabilities.

Back when I interviewed Jimmy Lorang, he mentioned that some of the campers love to joke around, and one of the jokes they like to play is not telling counselors that they are quite able to, for example, tie their shoes or get in and out of a wheelchair without assistance, and some of the counselors don't think to ask those campers what they do and don't need help with. When they find out, they might ask, “Why didn't you tell me you didn't need my help?” and get a giggled response, “Well, you never asked.” While many of us are focused on what a person cannot do, we forget to see what they can. We are not ability aware.

Diana Pastora Carson, ability awareness educator, describes ability awareness as a journey toward understanding, accepting, appreciating, and embracing disability within society. “[W]e are in no way 'looking beyond the disability.' We look at it directly, individually, with respect. Not with discomfort. Not with shame. Not with pity. We acknowledge it. But it is not our focus. Our focus is the person.”

And then Carlson seemed to write directly at me:
“In order to understand the disability experience, we must focus on ourselves. We often play a big role in the disability experience. Our attitudes and assumptions, actions or lack of actions can disable a person as much or more than their disability. Most of the time, we are completely unaware of our impact in the lives of others.”
Ability awareness is not only accepting, understanding, and embracing disability, but also accepting, understanding, and embracing ability. It means knowing what we are all capable of. Often we think that it is enough to know what a person cannot do so that we can assist. But a person is not defined by what he or she cannot do. A person is defined by what he or she does and can do.

1 comment:

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