Grow Up!: Giving People with Disabilities Adult Status

Top o’ the afternoon, readers!

Yeah, I know it’s cheesy. But I am at least 1/4 Irish, thanks to my maternal grandma. And no matter how much actual blood of the Land of Ever Young runs through my veins, Ireland is in my soul. So humor a lady who embraces the Christ of St. Patrick and, deep down, is still a friend o’ the little people in the pointy shoes, all right? Thank ye kindly–now, grab a cup o’ tea and let’s get down to work on our next post.

I intended to make this a post about how people with disabilities can “feel lucky” in the job market of this economy–as in, shoring up their hopes that yes, they can get real jobs and lead real lives, thereby finding their own “pots of gold.” But then I realized, I had a more pressing topic in mind, and one that actually incorporates the job issue somewhat. So I’m writing this instead. I’m going to give you another of my radical statements: I believe that, if those who love and support them are not careful, people with disabilities, even over the age of 18, are vulnerable to insecurities about their adult status.

Now, some of this, we’ve already covered. We already know, for instance, that pinning certain negative prophecies on people with disabilities, such as, “He/she can’t have sex” “She can’t have children” “He/she can’t live independently” places the person with a disability in a powerless, perpetually childlike position. But this kind of insecurity has a deeper root, and can crop up far more insidiously. How do I know? I’m in the throes of all-out war with it right now.

I am an avid Bible study participant, and one of my very favorite teachers is Mrs. Beth Moore. I have completed at least seven of her insightful, knowledge-packed studies, and am in the middle of her newest. It’s called Mercy Triumphs and is a study on the Book of James. James did say “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” but let me tell you–James also steps on the reader’s toes more often than a first-timer trying to do an Irish reel. His words, through the inspiration of his half-brother, Jesus, will challenge you to do some spiritual housecleaning. And you may find the house is dustier than you thought. You may even discover that living in your spiritual house has made you sick.

As painful as this is, that’s what I’ve discovered. I have spiritual cancer, readers. It accounts for the “heaviness of spirit” (Beth’s words, not mine) that I feel if I’m not careful. It accounts for the time I spent seeking help from my graduate school’s counseling service (and the temptation I sometimes feel to return to said service, even though I fear that decision would be negative). And–here’s the biggie–insecurities have given me spiritual cancer.

I’d never be this open with you, except I need you to know this stuff. Maybe you don’t believe as I do, and that’s okay. But even if not, you need to know what my insecurities are, and that they can give inner cancer of some sort to those around you if left untreated.

I suppose if I were going to keep it simple, gloss over things, I could say all my insecurities stem from CP, and that would be true. CP is my disability, as you know, and as you also know, a disability of any kind can do a lot of damage. It can make you feel different, as if you’ll never be equal to peers who don’t have disabilities. It can make you vulnerable to external and internal bullies, as well as the “culture of caring” (check out January’s archives for more on that). And it can make you feel as if you will never, ever be an adult.

Let me show you what I mean. If this were a classroom, I would ask for volunteers to tell me some of the physical symbols that make someone an adult. But since this is just me, I’ll write the ones that come to mind:

  • A driver’s license. This is given to the young adult (16 or older) who has–often for no reason other than virtue of age–proven he or she can handle the freedom and responsibility that comes with the ownership and operation of a moving vehicle with the capacity to injure, disable, and kill people. (Whew–now that I think of it, WHAT is America thinking, letting high school sophomores on the road?)
  • A job. This usually starts with the relatively unskilled after-school positions kids get in, say, the food industry or retail. But it’s assumed that will morph into the coveted Real Job eventually, because that young adult is allowed to network, transport herself to interviews, relocate, and do everything possible to get that Real Job.
  • An education, preferably one from a university, but trade schools count, too. Although considering the partying that some “adults” choose to do–resulting in academic probation and worse–I wonder, should this one make the list?
  • A home of one’s own, to paraphrase the lovely Virginia Woolf. Again, normally begins as an apartment or home shared with roommates, but eventually morphs into an actual house, house for most people.
  • A spouse and children, although with the way relationships are viewed in our society, this can and does take many forms and may be the source of tons of drama and heartache.

These are just a few, but I think they’re the biggies. If any of you ever played The Game of Life as kids–or adults–you probably also recognize the loose order (any errors or additions are my own).

Now, this post is not about how we should give people with disabilities these things; we’ve covered much of that ground already. No–this is about the fact that, whether people with disabilities do or don’t have these things, they are generally not regarded as adults. I’m serious, folks. It doesn’t matter how many of these things the person with the disability achieves–certain others will always see her as helpless, needy, and/or childlike. And the person with the disability who does not have these things–like me–may start to wonder, “I might be 18, or in my 20’s or 30’s, but do others see me as a grownup? And if not, what will it take?”

Ah–there’s the sticking point: what will it take? And, is our view of adult status correct? I’m not saying everyone shares this view, but the markers I just wrote about are a huge part of “adulthood” as most automatically think of it. Yet:

  • Adults with driver’s licenses have accidents, drive drunk or under drugs’ influence, and injure or kill others
  • Some adults choose not to attend college or throw their educations away
  • Getting a job is tough right now–and is generally tough no matter what the economy looks like. Some adults don’t even have one. And some adults choose jobs that others wrongly disparage, such as being a stay-at-home parent.
  • Home ownership? Wow–you wanna talk tough. The financial stress and upkeep are huge. Some adults choose to stay in apartments or condos, where management takes care of things like yardwork and repairs. Some adults choose to travel, living out of vehicles like RVs. And because of this economy, adults my age and older, by choice or otherwise, do still live with their folks.
  • Spouses and children? Please–do not get me started on the divorce rate, people going on shows like Springer and Maury to prove who the “baby daddy” is, and the unjust flak you get if you actually choose to stay single or marry, but not have kids.

Here’s the thing: I’d venture to say, if an adult without a disability took any of the above “alternative” options, we wouldn’t mind. We’d say they’re adults; they can do what they darn well want to. But if a person with a disability can’t meet these expectations? Or doesn’t want to? Too often, it’s their disability’s fault. They have “proven,” once again, that they are “failed normals” and “naturally deficient” (Mary Johnson). And so they don’t deserve the dignity to be treated and trusted as adults. So what happens? You got it, hon–insecurity, loss of confidence, and spiritual or emotional cancer.

There goes my Irish!

I’m still working through my own insecurities–undergoing therapy with Dr. Jesus, if you like. But, who better than the patient–the “wounded healer,” as C.S. Lewis wrote–to encourage others? So, person with a disability: I don’t care whose expectations you have and have not met, what interests you do or don’t have, or what your “mental age” is.If you are 18 or older, you are a legal adult and deserve adult treatment and responsibility, as much as you can get.And that goes for family members, coworkers, friends, and others in that person’s life, too.

So take this message to heart, and go raise a toast–alcoholic or non–to the amazing, ever-growing ADULTS in your life today.


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