This blog entry was inspired by the recent release of a video created as part of an action research project by Concordia University professor Ann-Louise Davidson in collaboration with LiveWorkPlay and its members. If you are not touched by these stories, I will give you your money back!
Hopefully you do find the stories of these two women inspiring. I have known each of them for a decade, but watching this video myself for the first time, I gained fresh perspective and renewed admiration for their personal journeys and accomplishments. But for those of you who hear their tales of struggle and triumph and experience a similar reaction, I want to make sure it is understood that their stories are not entirely unusual in the world of individuals who have an intellectual disability.
The best explanation I’ve ever heard (from Dave Hingsburger and others) for understanding life as a person with an intellectual disability is to imagine that trying to go about your daily business is like being Rosa Parks; but instead of race-based bigotry you are constantly asked to “give up your seat on the bus” to other people who think you are incompetent, fear you, bully you, or simply don’t value you as a full citizen. This is what Hingsburger has called “disphobia” (see also disablism and ableism).
You might think an analogy that links the blunt racism confronted by Parks to the current experience of people with intellectual disabilities to be a harsh or extreme comparison. But given half of Canadians in a 2008 survey conducted by the Canadian Association for Community Living openly admitted to being uncomfortable just being around people with intellectual disabilities, it becomes easier to understand not only the disgraceful rate of unemployment (a whopping 75%) but also why the segregation of people with intellectual disabilities (see below) continues in our communities. The figures on abuse and sexual assault are shocking. You probably wouldn’t believe me, so read at your own risk these statistics from objective third parties.
We have segregated education, segregated housing, and segregated sports and recreation. This is not to say that there is never a use for specialized supports and services, but rather that we should not only invest in keeping people with intellectual disabilities apart from others, we should invest in all citizens being together. (This is sometimes known as the movement for inclusion, but that label has been significantly co-opted and corrupted, so I use it with increasing caution).
In plain language, I am talking about upstanding citizens who get treated like criminals (see slides 18 and 21 here). Their “crime” is daring to live their lives despite being labelled as “abnormal” by a society that continues to deliberately marginalize and punish the existence of “difference.”
Increasingly we do see more positive imagery associated with disability and related labels. But how often does this extend beyond disabilities that are most easily understood (or at least that people think they can easily understand) such as a person who experiences success as an author, actor, politician or business person and happens to be deaf or blind, or perhaps someone who has a complex physical disability who happens to develop a theory to explain the universe.
The truth is, I can’t help but have an appreciation for anyone who has the courage to walk the streets of Ottawa without full eyesight (yes Shelley Ann Morris, I mean you). It’s dangerous enough for pedestrians with full eyesight (I recently had to jump the hood of a car to avoid being hit while crossing with walk signal). And yes, I am in awe of someone like Stephen Hawking. But I would like you to consider that there are all sorts of other people worthy of respect and admiration – not “because they have a disability” but because they live in a world that forces existence with a disability to require courage. These are the “Rosa Parks heroes” going about their lives in our communities each and every day: people with intellectual disabilities who dare to pursue paid employment, dare to live in apartments and houses in the community, and dare to attempt and welcome friendships from the people they meet.
Featured in the video that inspired this blog are two citizens that I admire for their courage in the face of adversity – the adversity that comes from living with an intellectual disability in a society that is in many ways openly hostile to their existence – coupled with some life challenges that would test the mental and physical will of any human being.
These are just two stories of struggle and triumph. Every single person with an intellectual disability faces adversity every day. We don’t need to patronize, deify, or glamorize their existence. But we do need to challenge ourselves as a community to make the daily life of people with intellectual disabilities a bit less heroic. If you can help by supporting the creation of a job, or perhaps you’d like to consider opening your life to new possibilities, please don’t hesitate to be in touch. It’s what all of us at LiveWorkPlay are determined to make happen, but we can’t do it without your help.
Special thanks to the Canadian Association for Community Living for profiling this video on their new and exciting website, and for providing many of the statistics and references on this article.