If you’ve ever known a person with a disability, read their books, or heard one speak at a gathering, you might have noticed that they all mention something. They talk about how, as a kid or even an adult, they want to be “like everyone else.” I’ve been there too, and I’ve said it. I’ve said, “I want to do this the way everyone else does it. I want to live in a dorm during college because every other high school senior in the country does. I want to get married and have a family at least partially because that’s what women do. Sure, they can have careers and travel and everything–that’s great. Go feminism. But…” And so on. The question coming to my mind today though is, does “like everyone else” mean what we think it does?
I didn’t start to question this until recently, when the people around me started pointing out how different I was from “everyone else,” whether “everyone” was coworkers, fellow church members, family members, or the world in general. Of course, you might say, “Duh. Didn’t you always know you were different, and isn’t that why you write this blog?” Well, yeah, on one level. I think PWDs know they’re “different,” just like people in other minority groups know it. The catch is, sometimes you don’t make the connection until or unless other people say something, or you see others do something in a different way than you. Speaking from experience, a little kid with cerebral palsy may know she has it, but it may not be a big deal until she realizes, she can’t run and play the way other kids can. The light bulb may not go off until she hears a parent or other adult say, “Kelsey can’t do this thing or that thing the way everyone else can.”
And even when the light bulb goes off, sometimes you don’t care. All my life, people told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t play sports. Who cared–I didn’t really want to. My teachers sometimes gave me modified math assignments in place of ones that required a lot of visual work. Who cared–I hated those assignments anyway. Thanks for the break, Teach! Sometimes I even liked being different, as in, okay, my CP probably meant I was more interested in academics than a lot of kids. Great! I got picked first when my class chose up sides for spelling bees. I could participate in Gifted English and kick butt at Quiz Bowl.
But some days, I’m going along living my life, and a coworker or family member says or does something really stupid. I get an email from a team member at work that says, “All our successful writers can format this client’s work correctly. Sarah’s work gets rave reviews from this client. Your work does not.” My dad wants to know why I can’t get into his truck after he waxed the running boards, because my elderly great-aunt and my mom, who has a bad knee, can do it. And I’m like, “Who cares? Why can’t I just do the things I can do, ask for help when I need it, and live life my way?”
Seriously. I want to do well in my work, but I do not freaking care about what Sarah is doing. It doesn’t really help me to know that everybody who is “successful” can do something I can’t. In the words of Stephanie Tanner, how rude. I don’t care if you have to help me into your vehicle, because you chose to wax the running boards. I’ve actually been like this my whole life. My mom and dad never had to say, “If Ashley and Megan jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” Why? Because I could care less what Ashley and Megan were doing. Sure, they were my friends. Sure, I wanted to participate in stuff like they did. But when the issue was doing something the exact way they did it, or just because they could do it, I wasn’t interested. If you wanted to get me to smoke a joint, you needed a better argument than, “Everybody’s doing it.” (Actually, that’s probably why no one ever offered me a joint, not that I’d have smoked it).
And yet, “like everyone else” is an argument the TAB world constantly uses against people with disabilities. As with a lot of arguments like these, PWDs just can’t win. We either say, “I want to do this because everyone else gets to/because it’s a milestone/because it looks fun,” and we’re told we can’t. Or we ask for help with something, or ask to do a different activity, and we’re told, “Everyone else is doing this, so you need to do it. If you want to be treated as equal, you have to do this thing this way, period.” Double standard much? You bet it is, and it doesn’t help anyone.
I think the temporarily able-bodied world, and maybe the disability community too, is downright confused about how to approach equality and disability. Some are less confused than others. For example, a lot of people have finally caught onto the fact that “fair” and “equal” doesn’t always mean everybody gets the same thing. But the problem is, when we approach situations on a case by case basis, confusion and resistance still exists. People with disabilities still get pushback. Let’s say Neal has autism. He’s great at creative writing and baseball, so when he wants to participate in those things, most people find a way to make it happen. But when he has a meltdown in class because of sensory overload, suddenly his teachers are like, “Neal, everybody else has to cope with the noises in this classroom. You need to learn to do that too, or you cannot participate.” Should Neal get help for his sensory overload? Yes, but not because he has autism and can’t interpret sensory information the same way everyone else does. He should get help because he is a human being who happens to have a disability that dictates the need for help. Autism doesn’t make him less of a person. It doesn’t mean he gets no choices in how to participate in or react to things. It just means Neal needs extra help in some areas–like everyone does sometimes!
I’ve come to the conclusion that “like everyone else” doesn’t mean what we think it does. It’s not even that accurate a statement, although we still use it. Maybe what we should be saying is, “Neal, Kelsey, anybody with a disability, needs to be treated like a person of equal standing.” What that means is, there’s no double standard. There’s no expectation to hop on some bandwagon related to how everyone else interprets the world. “Treat me like an equal person” allows room for everyone to get the unique help that will make them “equal.” And because “equal” does not mean “exactly the same, all the time, every time,” everybody wins.
Now that is something I can get behind everybody doing, and not just for themselves, but for each other.