Disability is natural, but learning how to interact with the disabled isn't

(This is the third and final part in a series. You can read the first and second parts by following those links.)

The presentation of "Including Samuel" that I went to began with an interesting slideshow from Disability is Natural, which said that with one in five people claiming a disability, they are the largest minority in the United States.

(These census stats confirm this and are fascinating if you want to look deeper into it. They are about 10 years old, but I think it's safe to assume the percentages are approximately the same today. For example, I had no idea 11 percent of children are disabled.)

This is a minority group that crosses all other boundaries of race, class, gender, religion and culture. It is a group that anyone can enter and practically everyone will enter at some point in their lives, either through birth defects, injury, illness or old age.

Put that way, it is hard to believe that this population is still so maligned and so invisible in mainstream culture.

It's the invisibility part that I think is most concerning about segregated special education. Like many of the adults in "Including Samuel," my school experience was that the children with disabilities were segregated into a "Life Skills" class and we only saw them at lunch, if at all. One of my friends was friends with one of the students with Down syndrome and she would sometimes come over to our table, but those encounters were brief and novel. I never really had to interact with people with disabilities so I never learned how.

You might say — particularly if you have a disability — it's easy! Just treat them like anyone else!

It's not easy. When I talk to or even see an adult with cerebral palsy, I have no idea where to put my eyes. I want desperately to inspect their wheelchair, their gait, their hand control, but I don't want to be accused of one of the seven deadly able-bodied sins: Staring. I feel self-conscious. I have a million personal questions that are totally inappropriate to ask a stranger (When did you learn how to walk? How well did you do in school? Is your daily life difficult? Can you drive? What does it feel like when you can't control your body?) so I stumble and stutter to find small talk topics. I am clueless for how to interpret facial expressions on someone who doesn't have normal control of their facial muscles — particularly those with low muscle tone, making them appear sullen — and therefore constantly worry that they are irritated at me.

I know that someday in the future this will be second nature to me. But for now it's not. And I marvel that even people with disabilities think this is easy because the range even just within the CP spectrum is so huge. 

I guess it's because by being part of the group, they have more occasion to interact with other members of that group, even those whose disabling attributes are very different from their own. So I know the solution is simply to interact more frequently with people with disabilities. It's worked for me with other groups of people, most notably when I fell into a crowd of Gabonese in France. Growing up and now living in suburban Oregon, black people are a rarity. I was nervous and self-conscious around my new African friends, but they were welcoming and little by little I learned how to interact with them and it didn't feel awkward anymore. I most certainly did not treat them "like anyone else" because we treat everyone differently according to who they are. If I had treated them like my French professors, for example, they would have been very put off and we never would have become friends.

Likewise, my acquired comfort with interacting with French Africans does not translate to interacting with black Americans. They have a different culture that has nothing to do with their similar skin color and I still rarely interact with them so I feel awkward when I do.

Considering all my travels and all the languages I've learned, I doubt I'm particularly xenophobic or prejudiced. Learning how to interact with people who are different than you is not automatic because no one is born knowing everyone else's culture.

For that reason, going to school in an inclusive classroom is as much to me about Jaden's education as it is about Malachi's.

Jessie Kirk Photography

(What? You were expecting a Valentine's Day post? Click that link to find out why I think V day is weird.)


  1. I loved this post because I completely agree. I feel like my interactions with those with disabilites come from a place of interest but I don't ever want to come across as though I feel sorry for them. I totally feel that the blogs I have been following the last couple years, yours included, have given me a comfort and some knowledge for different types of disabilites. This knowledge makes it easier for me to approach someone as another person to converse with rather than from curiosity. Thank you!


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