Disability from Two Different Viewpoints

“Jimmy” and Timmy” in their new club for people born with disabilities only.

It might not be something you think of often but the creators of South Park had it right in the second episode of the seventh season when they did a show called “Krazy Kripples”. In the show, two characters born with disabilities known as “Jimmy” and “Timmy” create a club that can only be joined by people who were born with their disability as a way of protesting the attention given to Christopher Reeve, who acquired his disability in a tragic equestrian accident.

There’s no doubt that Christopher Reeve was a great advocate for people with spinal cord injuries and that he did wonderful things to advance the cause of disability rights around the world. However, the media attention and the tragic stories that often accompany the circumstances surrounding many spinal cord injuries has, I think unwittingly, created a hierarchy. Our society has made an unfortunate distinction between those who acquire disabilities and those who are born with them.

There are both economic and social ramifications to this situation that have far reaching effects. For example, the insurance industry was created to financially protect people in case of unexpected tragedy or accident. As a result, those who acquire disabilities later in life often receive financial returns in the form of insurance payments that people born with disabilities are not able to receive. Also, on the social side of the coin, those who acquire disability bring with them the self-awareness, social networks and cultural identity that they had before they were injured. This is something many people born with disabilities have to learn as they go and while the networks and experiences do change dramatically for those who acquire a disability, they have a stronger sense of what it takes to live well in society and what will be required for them to reintegrate back into that world after their rehabilitation.

Those born with physical disabilities have a different scenario often because of the natural instinct among most parents to protect, to help and to shield their special needs children from some of the experiences they would either not be able to do or would struggle with accomplishing. It’s natural to do this when a child is young, but sometimes people born with disabilities are treated as if they have never aged. This can lead to situations where those individuals get over-protected to the point where they don’t know what they’re capable of doing, or when their own self-image is perhaps too heavily influenced by the disability they have.

Instead of seeing themselves as a person above and beyond their disability they can sometimes see a lack of distinction between themselves and their physical circumstance. These influences to protect and underestimate are also regularly found in schools and in the everyday interactions that many people born with disabilities have throughout their lives. It’s also something most people who acquire disabilities are usually able to successfully avoid, especially if their injury occurs in adulthood.

As a result, there are many people born with disabilities who have greater capabilities than they’ve ever been challenged to demonstrate. Yet, at the same time they also may lack self-confidence and self-awareness because they’ve been misled into not having more expected from them. Add into that the fact that their families may not have experience with disability and the fact that there typically is a wide gap between the small amount of program funding available in primary and post-secondary education to those born with disabilities, and you have a significantly different life experience and therefore a different level of independence.

I realize that I’m speaking in generalities in this blog post and I certainly don’t mean to imply that the experience of disability is exactly like this for every person who acquires a disability or who is born with one. However, these factors are present in both experiences with disability and they do present many inequalities among those who are living life with similar circumstances. Because this happens it’s difficult for those with disabilities to feel united as a group of people fighting for the same kind of rights because the truth is, the rights they require are all different. For example, it’s difficult to lobby the government to say that all people with disabilities should receive subsidized post-secondary education (similar to what is offered to many First Nations people in Canada) when it’s increasingly difficult to be able to pinpoint exactly what is a disability and who actually has a financial need for that sort of a support. 

Also, I think there is an unfortunate inequity in the way the story of disability is often told in the media. The inspirational stories of people like Rick Hansen and Christopher Reeve have definitely raised awareness about spinal cord injuries and they have improved the lives of many people who have faced similar circumstances though accident and injury. But, there haven’t been nearly as many stories to mark the accomplishments and journeys of those who were born with disabilities and it’s those stories that I think can change the way we look at disability. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe a disability is something that necessarily has to be overcome or conquered by attending the Paralympics, climbing a mountain or wheeling around the world. There is value (though perhaps it is less marketable) in the stories of people who simply live positively with their disabilities, contributing to their communities and being a strength to their families and friends.

After all, wouldn’t it be nice to see more people with disabilities in the workplace or out volunteering and being part of their communities? Wouldn’t it be easier for many people with disabilities to participate meaningfully if there were more people like them who could be found engaging in their community? No doubt, these situations are improving and I hope it continues because I’m tired of only hearing about those with disabilities when they’re being “inspirational” on a Paralympic podium or else when they’re lobbying for the right to die. I want to hear about the person with a disability who works at an oil company and supports a family. Can someone do a news story on that please? 

- Jon Bateman 
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