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.

From the Disability Wisdom Community: A Partial List of Disabled Change Makers

Recently on the Disability Wisdom Discussion Group, we brainstormed a list of disabled people who have been highly impactful on their professions or on the world. This list, written in no particular order, represents the collective contributions disabled people make in their communities. Of course, this list only scratches the surface, as there are many others with disabilities, some whose disabilities are undisclosed, who have impacted the lives of others. One thing, I hope, is clear: If we exclude disabled people from public life, we would be depriving our society of a lot of talent, innovation and creativity.

  • Temple Grandin.
  • Daniel Kish for Mobility/psychology/motivational speaking. Jenny Lawson for writing. Anthony Hopkins for acting.
  • Joanne Wilson, Pamela Allen, Jennifer Kennedy, Kenneth Jernigan for blindness rehabilitation.
  • Stella Young, who coined the term “inspiration porn.”
  • Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, is dyslexic.
  • I think Danny DeVito has some kind of disability… Either a learning disability or dyslexia.
  • Stevie wonder, hellen keller, ray charles
  • Jacob Bolotin was a blind doctor in the early 1900s.
  • Marcy Roth is really, really cool. She handled a lot of disaster releaf via fema,, did a lot of advocacy worldwide, and is now the executive director of the world institute on disability.
  • David Patterson, governor of New York, 2008-2010, is blind.
  • How about Vernon Smith, the Autistic economist who won a Nobel in 2002? Or Greta Thunberg whose activism has taken the world by storm (sorry for the climate pun)? Autistic actors Daryl Hannah and Dan Aykroyd ?
  • Judge Tatel on the DC Circuit. He is totally blind and considered a “feeder judge” (i.e. a judge whose clerks often clerk on the Supreme Court).
  • Greg Abbott I’m fairly certain that’s his last name, governor of TX and a wheelchair user.
  • I typed in famous people who are bipolar. I got Mariah Carey, Russell Brand, Demi Lovato, Carrie Fisher…
  • Kody Keplinger is a legally blind author. She wrote The DUFF.
  • Judy Human for wheelchair user and all around amazing person!
  • Haben Girma. A DeafBlind lawyer
  • Tammy Duckworth. She’s a senator from Illinois and a double amputee. She appears publicly with either her prosthetics or in her chair.
  • Paganini, the virtuoso violinist, had some sort of connective tissue disorder, probably EDS. He had other cronic illness situations, but the disorder probably contributed to long term health problems and his death. However, because of the hypermobility of his finger joints, he was able to do incredible things on the violin that others could not.
  • U.S. presidents: President Woodrow Wilson had a learning disability. President James Madison, Father of the Constitution had seizures. President Grover Cleveland was a cancer survivor. President Roosevelt had polio and he was a wheelchair user.

From the UK: Tanni Grey Thompson – multiple gold medal winning Paralympian, Baroness and member of the House of Lords ( one of two Houses of Parliament here )
Disability campaigner, wheelchair user.
She is always tweeting about problems accessing trains yet she has a train named after her because of her achievements ! Liz Carr, Actress , notably Clarissa in Silent Witness, writer and disability rights campaigner , wheelchair user. David Blunkett , blind former MP and Home Secretary

  • Historically, Homer, Milton, Beethoven, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Fannie Lou Hamer all had disabilities.
  • Couple more: Christine Ha (blind winner of MasterChef) and Geerat Vermeij (award-winning blind geologist).
  • Tim Cordes, blind physician.
  • Annette Funichello and Selma Blaire are both acclaimed actresses who continued to work after an MS diagnosis. Selma’s red carpet cane inspired me to suck it up and get my first cane.
  • ·         And many, many more!

On Serenity, Courage, Wisdom, and the Value of Community

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I’ve been dealing with a difficult situation lately. A person whom I care about deeply, by no fault of his own, is being firmly trapped in a jar, blocking him from his dreams. Recently I’ve been presented with a few courses of action I could take, all of which have a slight chance of helping this individual, and an unknown chance of making things worse for him.

This situation was weighing on my mind and heart when I went to my local synagogue to observe the Yom Kippur holiday a few days ago. I don’t practice Jewish rituals as “religiously” (for lack of a better term) as I used to. In fact, I admit the main reason I went to the synagogue was because my friend wanted me to go with her. I came in full of mental unrest about the situation, wanting to pray, but not sure where to begin.

I used to picture God as a literal guy in the sky, with a voice that boomed like thunder, and a team of angel-minions who came down to Earth to answer our prayers. After eleven years of postsecondary training in the natural and social sciences, my beliefs are pretty solidly agnostic. There could be a supernatural being somewhere, maybe, but we don’t know enough to prove it yet. I don’t really believe there is a definable entity listening to my prayers. But, I still find prayer to be an important meditative exercise that can bring me clarity on my own desires and priorities, and it can help me find a direction for my life’s energy.

As I listened to the familiar Jewish melodies from my childhood, though, the only words I could find to pray were the words of the Christian Serenity Prayer I quoted at the top of this post. Give me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I’ve already written about the Serenity Prayer in this post about being a fighter.

So, let’s break this message down a bit, as it bears great relevance to the disability experience.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change. There are many aspects of disability we can’t control. We often have limited power over the medical facts of our disabilities. Nor can we always control the ableist beliefs or behaviors of others toward us. Sometimes, we can get caught up in desperate efforts to escape our disabilities, or to change the minds of people who just won’t listen. These efforts can drain our energy and distract us from other, more fruitful ventures. We can find serenity, calm, and peace when we are able to accept what is instead of struggling for what can’t be.

Grant me the courage to change the things I can. Sometimes, our actions are effective. We can change our own beliefs and behavior. We can advocate for ourselves when a system is inaccessible. We can give time and money to people in need and groups working on the right side of justice. We can exercise our power to vote, to protest, and to lobby our lawmakers. Sometimes though, we are afraid to let go of the status quo, or we may question how effective our actions will be. When we hear about oppression, it is often easier to just switch the news channel or the browser window, to hope that someone else will act instead of us. Efforts to make change may bear negative consequences. But if we can find the courage to make change, we can improve our lives and the lives of others.

Grant me the wisdom to know the difference. This is where I have been struggling most. Not knowing if I can make things better for this person I care about, or if it’s time to walk away. “Knowing the difference” is likely the biggest struggle for many of us. After all, if we always knew when to act, and when to stay put, we wouldn’t ever waste any time fighting fruitless battles. In disability circles, we often talk about “picking our battles.” Knowing which battles to choose takes wisdom and experience.

As I reflected on the Serenity Prayer, it occurred to me that we can gather the wisdom to “know the difference” from community. When we put several heads together toward solving a problem, we can collectively figure out where we are able to effect change. When we work together, we are less likely to be led astray by fears keeping us from acting when we should, or anger driving us to slam our heads into brick walls.

Fortunately, the person I mentioned has a team of individuals looking out for his best interests. I am grateful for the partnership of others who recognize what is happening and put their minds and hearts toward finding the right course of action. We temper each other’s emotional reactions to the situation and collaborate to find the right path. We can accomplish much more together than I can alone.

Near the end of the Yom Kippur service, someone spoke about “holy work.” She said that “holy work” is work that (a) pulls a person out of their comfort zone, and (b) is work that requires community to be achieved. Indeed, my work with this person has challenged me and disrupted my sense of comfort. And, it is work I cannot do by myself. But, no matter what the future holds, I remind myself that the work I have already done has created positive experiences for this person which cannot be undone.

No matter what your spirituality (or lack thereof) is, I hope you may agree that the work we do in the disability community is “holy work” by the above definition. Overcoming centuries of deep-seated ableism in our history is something that disrupts our comfort, and it is something we cannot do alone. When we offer each other solidarity, wisdom, and advice for tackling challenges; when we work together to change policies affecting our lives; when we take the time to lift each other up, we are doing the “holy work” to build a positive future for our disabled brethren. Our nondisabled allies, too, are invaluable workers alongside us. May we, together, find the serenity of acceptance, the courage toward action, and the wisdom to carve our path to justice.

New Resource! Sex Ed for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) has just released a new sex-education guide for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Unlike other resources, this one is freely available to individuals to use for self-teaching, although it can also be useful in class and workshop settings. The guide includes a sequence of videos, featuring the voices of peers with IDD, along with a written discussion guide-written in plain language with images to aid understanding. Topics include sex and gender, puberty, masturbation, relationships and consent, birth control, and avoiding sexually transmitted diseases. I found that the videos and discussion guide convey positive, empowering messages about sexuality combined with straightforward information needed to make safe choices. If you have an IDD, work with people with IDD, or have colleagues in the field, please take a look at this resource and consider sharing it.

Check out the sex ed guide here!

Throwback Post! Don’t Try to Look Through My Eyes, Respect Me Instead!

Three years ago, the Foundation Fighting Blindness held a social media campaign called #HowEyeSee It. Participants posted videos of themselves attempting to do basic things in the dark or with their eyes closed. The campaign also featured videos meant to simulate progressive vision loss for viewers. The purpose was to raise “awareness” of preventable blindness.

As someone who has studied the harmful effects of blindness simulations (especially unstructured ones), I was active in the backlash against this campaign. In addition too sharing my publications on this topic, I posted several personal commentaries on my social media feed. Below is a short piece I wrote, focusing on how I wanted people to “understand” me without blindfolding themselves. I think it is applicable to the concept of disability wisdom more generally.

“I keep hearing people say that putting on a blindfold is a great thing, because it helped them to not take their sight for granted. Or to understand what I see. Here’s my response:

Sighted friends, I don’t mind if you take your sight for granted. Go ahead. I know you enjoy using your sight, and that doesn’t bother me. Of course if you ever lose your sight, I’ll be there to help you adjust.

I don’t need you to stop taking your sight for granted, and I don’t need you to see things through my eyes.
Here’s how you can support me:

-Hire me, or recommend me to others as an employee, without fear that I can’t perform the job.

-Invite me over for a potluck dinner and let me bring a dish. Don’t worry that I’ll fall down the stairs at your house or that I’ll burn myself in the kitchen.

-Work with me to improve accessibility and fight discrimination.

-Let my blind friends go places with their children without thinking their children take care of them.

-Let me go about my business on the street without grabbing me, steering me or constantly fearing I will get hit by a car.

-Above all, recognize I am more similar to you than different.

You don’t have to put on a blindfold or close your eyes to understand the most important thing about #Blindness: the best kindness you can give me is respect.”