We are Both: Disability and Competence

Hello readers,

My television life improved recently because one of my favorite shows, Once Upon a Time, is back for the second half of season six. I know a lot of people think the show has gotten boring and ridiculous, and is dying on the vine. I see where they’re coming from, and can be an objective voice. But the truth is, I still love the show, and see great lessons in it. One such lesson fits really well into this blog. It comes from the second season but is, dare I say, always timely.

The second episode of Once Upon a Time (OUAT) season two is called “We are Both.” By this time, the Dark Curse has been broken and the residents of Storybrooke remember who they are. Psychologist Archie Hopper knows he’s actually a humanized Jiminy Cricket. David Nolan knows he’s Prince Charming. Waitress Ruby Lucas is Little Red Riding Hood, and so on. The problem is, the residents of Storybrooke struggle with these dual identities. That is, in what situations should Ruby be Ruby, and when should she be Red? When are Snow White’s skills as a bandit/archer/princess needed, and when is she teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard? Has David Nolan become so used to being David that he can no longer function as a prince?

David eventually works through this and helps the others do it, too. “We are both,” he tells everyone in a crisis moment. The residents of Storybrooke don’t have to choose. They now live in a world of “and,” not “either/or.” And it occurs to me, why can’t people with disabilities do the same thing?

Often without meaning to, the TAB population, and sometimes people with disabilities themselves, don’t see this option. PWDs are defined only as a humanized diagnosis. They are remembered for what they can’t do or have trouble with, not what they can do or excel in. That’s a huge blow to their self-concept, and it handicaps their lives more than the actual diagnosis ever will. PWDs quickly and erroneously learn to get along in a world where TAB is the majority, they basically have to say, “Hi, my name is David and I have X.” That, my friends, is just as depressing as the Evil Queen/Regina’s Dark Curse.

Sometimes, this either/or proposition goes the other way, too. People with mild or invisible disabilities are especially vulnerable. It happened to me all the time. That is, teachers, friends, what have you, assumed because I got A’s in school, was creative, and could carry on an age-appropriate conversation, I was good at everything. I never needed help. Thus, they were shocked or even offended when say, I asked for help carrying a computer or going up and down stairs.

Like a recently in-cursed resident of Storybrooke, I have struggled most of my life to determine who I am in the context of disability + competence. Few people have allowed me to be both, especially at the same time. While that’s getting better as I get older, it remains a unique part of my dual identity. And I know if I’m experiencing this, other PWDs must be, too.

This is another way in which I implore the temporarily able-bodied world, and even the disability world, to think outside their boxes. In fact, throw out the boxes. No one is ever just one thing. TAB people are allowed to express this simply because they are human. A TAB stay at home mom is not “just” a mom. She’s also a city council member, an alto in the church choir, or a roller derby queen. A TAB teacher is not just a teacher. He’s a basketball player, a champion fencer, a dog owner, and a guy who loves to curl up with the History Channel and a big piece of lemon meringue pie after work. TAB people are allowed and encouraged to wear different hats, but PWDs are essentially told, “You’re either disabled or you’re not. You don’t get to decide where and when you need help/modifications. We decide for you because we know better. If you want to be known as something other than disabled, do not act disabled.”

What a bunch of hooey–and how unrealistic. What if the world treated TAB people like that, as in, “What do you mean you can’t fix your own car? I don’t care if you’re not a mechanic. You’re a lawyer, right? So you should be smart enough to figure out what’s wrong with your car.”

It just doesn’t work, for anyone. Everyone is competent, and everyone has things they need help with, disability or not. Furthermore, the two don’t always run parallel to each other. They can–for example, if I’m in a spelling bee, I’m not normally thinking about CP because it’s not a major issue in that setting. In fact, growing up, I tried to separate myself into two identities. This half of me is the competent person who can do stuff, this half is the CP person who can’t, and may they never meet. But it often didn’t work that way, and still doesn’t. I go out for coffee or lunch all the time, and I am competent to feed myself, pay for my meal, and carry on a conversation. Cutting food or opening condiments however, can be an issue. Thankfully, most of the people I spend time with understand that. They don’t suddenly shun me because they had to help with my filet mignon (actually, it’s usually more like a gyro or pasta, but whatever). They understand I am both.

If you are a PWD struggling to grasp your dual identity, know you are not alone. Know also that the identity doesn’t have to be duel. You don’t have to separate yourself just because that’s how the world treats you. Advocate for yourself as much as possible. Know that you are both, and that’s okay. Disability does not preclude competence, and competence does not preclude the need for help. You will be a much more well-rounded and interesting person as you learn to be both, and I think the rest of the world might learn something, too.

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