Pushing Forward Against the Arm of Paternalism

This past Monday, I was heading to Baltimore to present at the biennial Leaders Assembly for one of my favorite clients, the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Heading downstairs in my apartment building, I entered the elevator where another woman was standing near the button panel. Since I didn’t want to awkwardly bump her while reaching for the button panel, I asked her to press the lobby button for me. She did.

I cannot see elevator lights, so instead I listen to the beeps to determine which floor I am on. I entered on the fourth floor, so after the elevator descended and I heard it beep three times, I knew I was on the first (lobby) floor. Having lived in my current building for ten months, I had done this elevator ride hundreds of times, and was confident in my travels.

The door opened, but my elevator companion said “no, this isn’t the lobby.”
“Yes it is,” I countered, and walked toward the door.
“No, not the lobby,” she said again. She then tried to block my exit with her arm. Instinct took over, and I pushed forward as hard as I could. Luckily the interfering arm gave way. I stepped out of the elevator into the lobby. My companion continued down to the garage.

I am unsure why my elevator companion was so confident that I was exiting in the wrong place; perhaps there was a language barrier, perhaps the visual indicators from the elevator malfunctioned, or perhaps she was just distracted. In any case, she and I had different perceptions of the same reality. As it turned out, my perception was correct and hers was not. Rather than simply accepting this discrepancy, though, she felt it necessary to try to correct my “error” in a direct physical way. I couldn’t help but wonder if the same thing would have happened if I did not have a visible disability.

I traveled to Baltimore and got ready for my workshop, still feeling unsettled. Of course, I was rattled by the physical confrontation and the fear of being trapped in the elevator. I felt frustrated to have had my judgment and competence questioned. And, I was alarmed by my own internalized sense of doubt. When the elevator door first opened, part of me wondered if I really wasn’t in the lobby after all, and when I pushed out of the elevator, I half expected to be on the wrong floor. There was a part of me that wanted to acquiesce to her simply because she could see and I could not. Even in my own apartment building, where navigating is automatic and mindless, I doubted my own judgment.

Those of us who were born disabled find ourselves immersed in a world of people who sense, think, feel, speak, or move differently than we do. From the earliest age, we are taught to obey figures of authority who interact with the world in this different way. All too often, we are subjected to well-meaning interventions meant to convert our ways of sensing, thinking, feeling, speaking or moving into a more typical manner. Explicitly and implicitly, we learn that our ways of interacting aren’t as good or as right as the ways the rest of the world interacts. And, when a discrepancy of perception or judgment occurs, we may tend to follow that of the nondisabled person over our own. If we push forward, asserting the soundness of our judgment and our desire to move ahead, sometimes the well-meaning, but oppressive, arm comes up to stop us in our tracks. If this happens often enough, the natural response is just to stay put and stop pushing.

In Baltimore, I spoke with a small group of camp leaders about strategies to build an inclusive camper culture. I began by introducing my own story of being excluded from a Jewish summer camp. Then, we discussed tough situations involving reactions to disabilities. The workshop participants discussed how they allowed campers with disabilities to tell their own stories and reframe their peers’ questions about differences in positive terms. We talked about universal design and strategic staffing arrangements to support all campers without drawing extra attention to a camper with a disability. We talked about the balance between inclusion and disability community, and how we can foster disability pride in young people while still giving them the same opportunities as their peers without disabilities.

I rode home and grabbed the elevator up to my apartment (alone this time). By then, I was feeling a bit more optimistic about the future of my brothers and sisters with disabilities. At least some members of our society recognize the positive value of differences. These allies enable others to tell their own stories and trust their own perceptions without imposing nondisabled norms and expectations on them. Perhaps we will raise a new generation of disabled people who rarely, if ever, doubt their own convictions in the face of nondisabled challenge. Inevitably, young people with disabilities will encounter the interfering arms of others attempting to redirect their dreams. But I am confident that we can give them the strength to gently, but firmly, push their way past.

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