Fire Trucks, Christmas Elves, and How to Nurture Disabled Ambition

A five-year-old boy, let’s call him Sam, is at his grandmother’s house watching his favorite television show. He watches the firemen with their big red trucks and blaring sirens, rescuing people from danger.

“I want to be a fireman!” he tells Grandma with excitement, but Grandma says he can’t.

Three years later, Sam’s little brother Joe turns five. Joe tells Grandma that he wants to be a Christmas elf, making toys in Santa’s workshop.

Grandma says nothing.

Why is Sam discouraged from his dream, while Joe is not?

If you guessed that Sam has a disability and Joe doesn’t, you would be correct. This story was adapted from this article written by a blind man who dreamed of being like the firemen he watched on the show Emergency. He was told he couldn’t be a fireman because he was blind. But, when his sighted brother wanted to be a Christmas elf, an entirely fanciful career, nothing was said.

I sometimes get questions from parents or teachers of disabled children. “Should I tell my child [or student, or loved one] that they can’t really be a [fireman or policeman or astronaut or heart surgen] because of their disability?” They might say they don’t want the child to get false hope, or they want to be “realistic.” We mustn’t forget that many young children’s fantasies for their futures are not realistic at all. Sadly, the socially constructed narratives we hold about disabilities are so focused on deficits that they obscure the power of imagination. Not just imagination about how disability-related barriers might change by the time a child is grown, but also the imagination that comes with early-childhood fantasy. I am not sure if a study has been done, but I would guess that few adults end up in the career field they fantasized about when they were five.

I tell these people to use their children’s interests as a springboard for learning. If the child wants to be a pilot, even if the government says (in 2019) that their disability will disqualify them, give them books and videos about famous pilots. Let them visit flight museums. Talk to them about all the different career options available in aerospace. Incorporate flight topics into lessons about other things.

Children with disabilities are overwhelmed with messages about their limitations from an early age. They will quickly figure out what society expects them not to be able to do, without explicit instruction. I see no reason for parents or educators to deliberately add more negative messages to the mix. Instead, help kids gain an experience base to evaluate what professions they want to explore further

There is a time to be “realistic” about career goals, though. Regardless of disability, teens and young adults are saddled with the important task of refining their professional goals. In the best-case scenario, youth will choose careers that not only match their passions and aptitudes, but where there are plentiful job options. In reality, young people may explore several career goals in a nonlinear process. I’ve heard that the average college student changes their major three times. Disabled students, too, will engage in this kind of experimentation, but it can be more challenging to change majors or to end up in a career field with few job opportunities.

In our youth program, we use career assessment tools like the Career Index Plus to help our students (ages 14-21) refine their career goals. These assessments provide information on careers that most closely match the student’s self-identified strengths and work preferences, and allow students to learn about the pros and cons of these different careers. We also have students interview professionals workig in fields of interest to find out what a typical day is like in their job, what the educational path looks like to get into their job, and what qualities someone needs to do well in their job, among other things.

I don’t think a 16-year-old should be expected to set a firm career goal just because they are disabled. I do think that if well-implemented, “pre-employment transition services” can help disabled students to set strong vocational plans, identify employment barriers in their chosen field and ways to overcome them, and build up their professional networks. Arguably, a professional network is even more important for a disabled job-seeker than for a nondisabled one. Mentors and colleagues can help vouch for a disabled applicant’s qualifications, counteracting stigma and low expectations. A final part of pre-employment transition services, work experience, is beneficial for all youth, but disabled youth may struggle to gain early work experiences without support. Whether the work experience is babysitting, bagging groceries, or doing an internship related to one’s career goal, youth will gain required workplace skills as well as evidence of their employment potential that they can show to others.

I hope that someday, I can live in a world where nobody even considers questioning the dreams of a young disabled child. Where our instinctive response isn’t a “can’t” but a “why not?” Where we can respond to the ambitions of our disabled brethren at any age with information, tools, and support. After all, believing in inclusion is our first step to achieving it.

2 thoughts on “Fire Trucks, Christmas Elves, and How to Nurture Disabled Ambition

  1. Well hey, I wanted to be a doctor when I was five and I’m a doctor now. Of course, I wanted to be a doctor who “put things in but didn’t take things out.” And then I wanted to be an actor, author and illustrator, all at the same time, and then a research biologist. And then I actually taught special education for five years before going to medical school. But I still consider I’m following my long term plan.

    I wrote my take on this a few years ago. As usual, writing about it helped me sort out my thoughts but also gave me more questions than answers. I think my take home is that we should never, ever quash the dreams and imagination of little kids. But we should start introducing reality around transition age.

    We also should let kids know when reality is because of actual limitations, such as needing a certain amount of dexterity to be a surgeon, and when they are because of imposed limitations and prejudice, such as military prohibitions against people with some mental health histories.

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