“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
~ John Donne
Wow! Who could have dreamed the current pandemic situation? Who would have guessed we would all become experts on hand sanitizers, face masks and social isolation?
During this time, I have learned many new things. One thing that stands out is the practice of "social distancing." Its purpose is to protect ourselves and others, by self-isolating to prevent further spread of the virus. COVID-19 has forced the entire world to understand the importance of 'working together' by 'staying apart'! It is a difficult practice, as we stay apart from those we love, work, play and interact with. But we have determined it to be necessary for the public's health and safety during these days of COVID-19.
As this new normal has unfolded, I see some similarities in other ways that we practice social distancing.
I recently read two excellent articles about ableism. Ableism is "discrimination in favor of able-bodied people." An unconscious prejudice from a person without a disability, towards a person who has a disability. There is an uneasiness about disability, which often results in such unrecognized preconceptions. Most able-bodied people never realize the unconscious, yet biased attitudes they hold.
There seems to be a connection between the open social distancing that is due to the pandemic and the concealed social distancing that can hinder productive relationships between ‘able-bodied' persons and persons with disabilities.
Prejudice can take many forms. Most people are not overtly 'against' a person who has a disability. You will not usually see outward displays of bad treatment of someone who has an impairment. It's usually much more passive. It is usually exhibited as attitudes of pity, even fear. The anxious reminder of a person's own mortality. There can be an unspoken view that "a person is less of a person because of a disability." What is the antithesis of that? "I am more of a person because I don't have a disability." Wow.
What is Normal?
Some people think that a person with a disability who gets up and goes to work every day is "inspirational." But a neighbor without a disability who does the same thing, is doing what is 'normal'. This train of thought can lead to the perception that a person with a disability CAN'T live a 'normal' life. But 'normal' is in the eye of the beholder!
It reminds me of when I was a young mother, and my toddler son Matthew became deaf from meningitis. We had not had any previous interactions with others who were deaf, so we had limited knowledge. Coming from a place of inexperience, I questioned the very basics of his life - would he be able to go to school, get a job, get married, drive a car??? These worries are laughable now, but it was real for me as a hearing mother of a child who was deaf. I was fearful of my own limitations; of whether we would do a good job of parenting a child with hearing loss.
As I have come to learn, communication is more than hearing, speaking and even language itself. It is the crux of our relationships with one another. I relied on the spoken language alone, not allowing for others forms of communication. This was a limitation, an impairment on my part. Coming to terms with this, we determined to meet it head on. We had the attitude that this little "setback" did not have to be a hindrance to fulfillment and purpose in life!
But...I must admit, secretly, I felt pity for him. There was a sadness, a feeling of defeat. That he would not have the same opportunities that hearing people had. This clouded perception that something was missing was pervasive and troubled me. It was an unconscious weight that I carried; I didn't even realize that I was doing it.
Disability and Social Distance
Yes, another term for it is "Ableism." A different form of social distancing.
One day when Matt was a young teen, we were at church. I watched with pleasure as a young friend of his communicated using some basic signs. She signed a few things, and he went on his merry way, happy to have made contact with this pretty girl. She then said out loud to herself in a sad, quiet voice, "I feel so sorry for him..."
My heart sank. I immediately understood that was not what Matt wanted or needed. Or deserved. Without realizing, she perceived Matthew as less capable than people who were hearing. She meant no harm in her statement, but there was harm in the sentiment. I can still feel myself reeling from the sudden awareness that my own perspective had also been one of pity. This innocent encounter changed my entire outlook. This new perspective freed me from doubting his abilities. There was no more feeling of pity because he had a disability. Once I embraced this awakening, disability changed its name. My prejudiced fears were MY limitations (disability?), not his! I’m forever thankful for that life-changing realization of that day.
Times are difficult right now for everyone, but we can grow because of the trials we are experiencing. We may need to distance ourselves physically in this time of pandemic, but we need to be aware of other types of social distancing that is not for our good. Once we realize that we are all in this together, the more we will understand and respect each other. And ultimately better our world for everyone, pandemic or not, disability or not.