Superstars: Recognizing the Accomplishments of People with Disabilities as Real Achievement

Hello, readers,

As an English tutor/teacher, book addict, grammar guru, and writing aficionado, I love words. I love to read them, write them, define them, play with them, and study them. So to start off today’s post, let’s do a quick word exercise. Without using a thesaurus or dictionary, close your eyes and think: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “accomplishment?”

This is one time I wish I could interact with you, because I’d love to hear your answers. Maybe some of them have a personal story attached, and I love getting to know people through their stories. Maybe some of you thought of a definition based on what “accomplishment” meant or did not mean in your own life. For example, maybe some of you participated in art, music, or sports, but were only considered to have accomplished something if you won a prize or trophy, or got MVP. (And for those of you who have gone through that–have a hug). Maybe some of you are feeling lighthearted today and thought, “Chick, my accomplishment was getting out of bed this morning!” Hey, I hear you. And I also know for some, that answer is raw reality. For those of you who fit that category–kudos to you.

Now, why did I have us do this word exercise? You got it–because I want to examine what “accomplishment” means for people with disabilities–and what it should mean.

We can go ahead and break out the dictionaries and thesauruses now. My computer dictionary defines “accomplishment” as, “the completion or fulfillment of something,” “a remarkable or successful achievement” or “a talent or skill that has been developed.” Synonyms include “achievement,” “skill,” “talent,” or–my favorites–CAPABILITY and ABILITY.

Most of you might be thinking, “Okay, I know where she’s going with this–people with disabilities all have abilities, and they are the most important things.” Right-o. But you might also be wondering about the kinds of disabilities we’re talking about, and what should be considered an accomplishment. For example, we all know that despite our best efforts at inclusion–which everyone should make–it might not be fair to expect a child with a severe intellectual disability to make straight A’s or score in the hundredth percentile on a standardized test. Sure, we can shoot for things like that, but they may not occur. Just as, we shouldn’t keep someone with a physical disability from playing sports. But if those physical disabilities seem to preclude him or her from being the “star” player–or if he or she doesn’t want to be that person–we shouldn’t saddle him or her with that expectation. (And by the way, what’s with this “star” business, anyway? Not really my cup of tea). So, what should we say an accomplishment is? And how should those accomplishments be treated?

I said a second ago, I don’t buy into a “star player” mentality. Certainly, one athlete, musician, actor, artist, or writer may be the most talented in a group, and we should acknowledge that. But not at the expense of the others’ talents. Why do I say that? The answer is simple: because everyone is a star. Sometimes we just don’t know it yet.

Maureen G. Mulvaney, a writer and teacher, wrote a piece for Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul entitled “Any Kid can be a Superstar.” At the time, she was teaching in a self-contained special ed classroom, and fifth-grader David was, shall we say, her problem student. She describes him as constantly “disrupting the class by cussing and fussing,” being physically aggressive, shouting “I hate you!” upon their first meeting, and generally acting out the emotions of a very angry boy. But Ms. Mulvaney also describes the “poor customer service” David received at school. Everyone from the bus driver, to the lunch monitor, to teachers outside his wing, yelled at or scolded him. Mulvaney writes this child was “passed from class to class like a bad rumor.” Children ridiculed David, in part because of his bullying and in part because of his significant body odor (he earned the nickname “Stinky David” very quickly, and sat in his own cubicle because none of the other kids would sit near him).

Like any teacher, Maureen Mulvaney suspected the blame lay with David’s parents, but on a visit to their house, she encountered, not abuse and neglect, but a loving father and grandmother, both barely literate, trying to do the best they could under impoverished circumstances. Ms. Mulvaney received permission to teach David how to groom himself and let him take showers at school, and, as I remember, may have been able to supply extra food. But most importantly, this teacher saw that a lot of David’s issues rested with the “customer service” he and the other special needs students got–or did not get, rather. She encouraged the other teachers and staff to start calling her students The Superstars whenever they saw them. The plan resulted in improved behavior, improved morale all around, and a new outlook for David. “I ain’t stinky no more; I am a superstar!” he said once.

Maureen Mulvaney’s right, I think. No matter how severe a child’s disability, disorder, or circumstances are, he or she is a superstar and should be treated like one. What does that mean? I think it means a few things.

First, seeing the loved one with a disability in your life as a superstar means acknowledging, praising, and nurturing any strengths and talents they have. If they’re intellectually, artistically, athletically, or socially gifted, that might be easy. But even if they don’t seem “gifted” in the classic sense, that loved one has passions and talents. Maybe they lie with comedic timing. Working with animals. Gardening. Whatever. The point is, no matter what the circumstances, learn to look for those talents, instead of saying something like, “Monica has a severe disability; the best she can be expected to do is stack boxes and make widgets.”

Next, understand that accomplishments can in fact be anything. This is especially true for children. That is, if you have a child with a disability who, for whatever reason, doesn’t get the hang of tying shoes until age eight or nine? So what–that’s still an accomplishment. If your child with PTSD goes through 24 hours without a panic attack, when you were hoping for a week? Take a deep breath, put yourself in your child’s shoes, and celebrate those 24 hours. If your child or other loved one comes to you discouraged and says, “I can’t do anything,” be prepared to sincerely remind them of their strengths and accomplishments, and what they have mastered that, perhaps, they couldn’t do before. It will really help!

Finally, understand that, like all people, people with disabilities have many different outlooks on the world. For one, it might be a huge accomplishment to pour a glass of milk in the morning. But for another, an accomplishment might be defined as hitting a home run, getting straight A’s, or something similar. What am I saying? I’m saying, read your loved one’s cues. If they don’t think pouring milk is a big deal, don’t go gung-ho with it. They will feel downgraded, like a baby, and they may even feel you’re acting phony. (Trust me, most people, high IQ or not, know “phony” when they see it). Learn what that person thinks of as an achievement or feat, and go with it. Of course, it’s okay to say, “I’m proud of you; you couldn’t pour your own drinks this time last year.” But save the big accolades for what the person thinks are worthy of them.

To sum up: I think we’ve all been conditioned to think “accomplishment” only means being perfect, or being the best. I think we’ve all been conditioned to overlook “little things” as unworthy of being called accomplishments. But that isn’t true. An accomplishment can be anything–anything that adds sparkle to someone who is already a superstar.


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