Giving Thanks for the Right Things: Integrating Disability into the Spirit of Thanksgiving

Hello, readers,

Yes, I disappeared for awhile. Between the demands of a second Master’s degree and the recent news that I am getting a book published in the spring, I have been one busy lady, writing papers, doing edits, and writing a discussion guide for the book, among many other tasks. But this blog was not far from my mind, and now I intend to attempt a more regular routine with it.

Today’s post, as you can tell, concerns Thanksgiving. I hope everyone has had a good one, and that the trytophan and other after-effects of the bird and its table compatriots have worn off. And I hope that in the midst of yesterday’s Black Friday chaos, everyone still found time to think over the things they had to be grateful for. And of course, it occurs to me: what does that look like for people with disabilities and their families? So I wanted to write a post about that, addressing some of the misconceptions about thankfulness and disability, and hopefully showing what people with disabilities and their families can really be thankful for this season. So, here we go…

Misconception #1: People with Disabilities Should be Grateful all the Time

This is a relative of “people with disabilities are, or should be, perpetually happy” (see the August archives, the post on “good labels.”) This misconception basically works on the idea that people with disabilities are so enthralled by the ability to do the simplest things that they never have any reason to feel anything but joyously thankful for any crumb life throws at them. For example, sometimes people wonder why people with disabilities push so hard for independence and access in our world–they should be grateful we let them live and move in the outside world at all. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Now, I understand that there is virtue in being grateful for the small things in life, and I extol that. But if you make it into a Pollyanna-esque attitude, and if you expect people whose lives “the system” routinely makes difficult to be over-the-top thankful for, say, the one accessible entrance in his or her neighborhood, then that’s just phony.

A relative of this misconception is:

Misconception #2: People with Disabilities are Never Thankful for Anything

This is a relative of the stereotype that says we’re all angry people with chips on our shoulders because of something we were born with and can’t “fix.” No, no, NO. The truth is that, just like everybody else, people with disabilities have things they’re honestly thankful for every day. They have things that can go either way–as in, one day you like your job or your school, and the next day, you really, really hate it. And they have things that they may never be thankful for, such as, let’s say. Brussels sprouts. Gasp–they may never be thankful for therapy and doctor appointments! (And doesn’t THAT fly in the face of how society expects people with disabilities to act? I love it). Yes, we’re thankful and grateful. It just may not be for what people expect us to feel those emotions toward. Because as we’ve discussed, when people with disabilities don’t do or say what society expects of “normal” people, the “normals” get really scared. *Evil laugh here*.

Misconception #3: The Families of People with Disabilities Should Encourage the Attitude, “It Could be Worse”

Now, in theory, this is one I get. There is always someone, somewhere, who is worse off than you are. And yes, because of the varying degrees of disability, a person with a disability can be honestly thankful his or hers is not “worse” than the next guy’s. In fact, the sad truth is, society and the media encourage this attitude, mostly by showcasing the most severe, debilitating disabilities in movies or on television. It’s like they want us to walk away with one takeaway message: “Thank God that’s not me!” And that makes me sick.

And yes, one of the things families of people with disabilities should be thankful for is the things their loved ones can do, or is strogn in. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem comes in when, as often happens, people use the “it could be worse” construct to reinforce the disability hierarchy (being Deaf is not as bad as having CP, which is not as bad as Fragile X, which is not as bad as…) It’s also a problem when the “it could be worse” attitude gets consciously or unconsciously shoved down the person with a disability’s throat, as in, “Stop complaining about going to therapy! You should be grateful these people take time to help you!”

Misconception #4: A Person with a Disability will Always be Thankful for the Same Things you Are

Yeah, this likes a case of “duh!” But bear with me here. This one has actually happened to me, and I’d venture to say it happens to others. As in, let’s say you have a child or young adult in your house who, like me, is intelligent but has poor motor skills. You might be thankful beyond words that this year, that child or young adult has mastered some simple skill like writing her name. But let’s say she’s thankful she got A’s in a tough subject, or got to take riding lessons this year. You see where I’m going, don’t you? Right–if you focus too much on being thankful that she can write her name, she’ll feel cheated, and dumb. (Note that this can also work in reverse, and that people with disabilities may be very proud of their “simple skill” gains, but choose to keep them private). For any and all types of disabilities, be thankful for what you wish–but also, focus on the things the person is most thankful for, and help him or her celebrate those things.

So, after reading these misconceptions, what have we learned about thankfulness and disability? I gave you four misconceptions, so now:

Four Truths about Thankfulness and Disability:

1. Give thanks for the strengths and accomplishments of your loved one, instead of thankfulness that his or her weaknesses are not “worse”

2. Celebrate the things your loved one is most thankful for, whether that’s learning to tie shoes or getting a scholarship

3. Let thankfulness come naturally, rather than forcing it–expecting your loved one to be thankful for everything or nothing

4. Express your thanks for your loved one and what he or she has done to enrich your life!


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