A very common occurrence in my life is people's obvious discomfort with my presence. I don’t mean friends, family and what I feel is like half the population of Tauranga (you wonderful people!). I mean strangers and people who have never met or heard of me. This is especially apparent on a regular basis at my speaking engagements.
Event organisers who engage me as a speaker often prefer not to disclose my disability, allowing me to make a statement when I enter the room after my introduction. Hence, whenever I arrive at the venue, nobody really knows I am the speaker let alone expects that this guy in the wheelchair dressed casually in a T-shirt could possibly be the keynote speaker. Some people offer to help but few come forward to interact with me. In fact, I am generally “ignored” or perhaps I should say, politely “given space”.
What is actually apparent in this state of being “given space” is people's tendency to stare. Let me correct that. What is actually apparent is their poor attempt at trying to look like they are not trying to look. If you are one of them, let me tell you that I see you and you look silly! I promise I won't bite if you came up to talk to me.
This is not unique to me. Most people with disabilities observe the same discomfort in others and put up with the attention. They see it too. But unlike me, their first thought or feeling may not be about you.
Is it a look of pity? Or is it curiosity? Perhaps shock?
Jiun admits to a strange mix of the three when she first set eyes on me. She also admits to a sense of awe since the organisers of the conference where we met had disclosed who I was and what I had achieved in my life. She feels very different about me now, but that’s another story altogether!
The situation after my presentation could not be more different! The same people who had kept an arm’s length are on to me with warm handshakes and hugs. They tell me I am amazing and inspirational. More importantly, they treat me like their equal.
Yet I am still the same person they had stayed away from. So what has changed? Nothing on my part so it must be other people’s perception.
Many become comfortable enough to ask me how they should approach or interact with a disabled person. In return, I ask them why they thought they should be different in the first place and their responses are usually to the effect of not wanting to offend, hurt feelings or say something wrong.
Isn’t that presumptuous to start with?
I threw this question out to my Facebook fans. Most people commented that people with disabilities should be approached in the same way as any other abled-bodied person. I could not have said it better myself. But, how many can actually do it? How many can see a disabled person and not immediately make a judgement?
After my speaking presentation, the audiences’ original perception of me is thrown out the door. Well, they were the ones who were wrong in the first place! Unfortunately, most people do not have the privilege of correcting other people’s perception by talking about their life stories in the same way that I do.
Jiun works with some severely disabled people at Tauranga RDA. She loves it! One day, she told me about a young boy who was a normal, happy and active child until he was about 5 years of age. He then started to deteriorate and is now unable to function or respond physically and possibly even blind. But how could they know that inside that body is not a perfectly intelligent and aware mind?
They couldn’t. So they assume he understands and is aware of everything that goes on and they speak to him like they would any other person. That to me, is inspirational work because it is so much easier to go the other way.
So as a person with disability and humbly on behalf of all those without voices, I encourage you to interact with us and urge you to keep pre-conceived perceptions at bay when doing so. We never know what someone, abled-bodied or otherwise, has achieved or is capable of just by looking at them.
A genius called Stephen Hawkings come to mind.