I have to be honest when I say that I generalize things, it’s hard not to, but I am learning that is a dangerous and ignorant way of looking at things. Before coming into the mobility industry, I didn’t think too much about people with disabilities or people in wheelchairs because it wasn’t a part of my life, luckily. Five years ago, I had never know anyone personally who had a disability or had ever talked with someone who was in a wheelchair.
When I took the job at VMI, I was immersed into the lives of people with disabilities and I thought I could learn everything I needed in a few short months; talking with people and learning about their injuries, disabilities and struggles. Here I am five years into my life at VMI and the mobility industry and I have discovered that I will never know the extent of people’s struggles and the various degrees of the multiple diseases that plague people and their families. Everyone’s journey is unique and different and it is up to us as able bodied people to understand this. We shouldn’t try to “figure out” or even begin to fathom what disabled people, or their family members go through. Instead, we should try to learn from each and every person we meet and take that experience as a learning encounter.
For the past year, I have been volunteering with an organization called KEEN, Kids Enjoy Exercise Now. It is a wonderful organization where a volunteer gets paired up with a child that has a disability (cognitive or physical) and we basically play for a couple of hours in a gymnasium. Most of the children who come KEEN are cognitively disabled; autism, down syndrome, etc. In my ignorance, when I thought of Autism, I thought of a child that was emotionally detached from society and couldn’t smile. Man, was I wrong. I have “played” with numerous kids at KEEN and have learned, through personal experience, that Autism is a vast umbrella that doesn’t really begin to describe the uniqueness of the disorder.
Kids with Autism not only smile, they laugh and love life. However, the severity of the disorder is so vast that to even begin to put a label on these kids is absurd. All of the kids I have encountered at KEEN that have Autism are warm and bubbly and seem to love life. They all have their quirks. They all have buttons, so to speak, that need to be pushed for us to understand what makes them happy. But when you think about it, so do we as able bodied people?
I recently watched a great episode of Jenks on MTV where an able bodied person immersed himself into the life of Chad, a boy with Autism. It struck a chord with me and the struggles that I have when I play with the Autistic kids at KEEN; we need to live in their world instead of trying to have them live in our world. We will never understand them and they will never understand us and that is okay. What we, as able bodied people need to do is accept them. As with all people that have a disability, we cannot put them into a “bucket”. Let’s not assume we “know” everything about people with disabilities; instead let’s let them teach us about what makes them tick and what makes them happy vs. us trying to assume what we think will make their lives better. Let us continue to learn, understand and grow from everyone we meet.