In the world of disability, there are three concepts that throw some major roadblocks in the way of people with disabilities.
Ready. Realistic. Never.
As the mother of a young child, I hear “ready” the most. My daughter is in therapy so she can be “ready” to access the world. When she turns three, she will go to school (while her typical peers stay home or attend daycare/preschool) so that she can be “ready” to go to kindergarten. She’ll start kindergarten at age 5 only if she is “ready,” otherwise she has to stay in special education preschool another year.
So on, and so forth.
From birth, this concept of ready has sort of stuck in my craw, though I have never been able to articulate why until now: ready for what? No one is ready for school until they actually go and learn how to be a student. Kindergarteners come to school with all levels of ability – some can read, others have never cracked open a book. Some don’t even speak English.
Yet my child is held to some standard of “ready” in order to cross the threshold into a typical kindergarten classroom. My child will be held to behavioral and academic standards to which no other child will be held, all because of the circumstances of her birth – she has an extra chromosome.
We do the same thing to adults trying to enter the workforce. They are required to be “ready,” and are held to high behavioral and productivity standards. They stay in high school longer so that they will be “ready” when they graduate at 21.
Think back to your first job: were you actually ready on that first day? Likely not. Even with a college degree or apprenticeship, that first day of work is nerve-wracking. Even if you have been in your field for years, switching to a new environment involves learning new procedures, new coworkers.
I recently heard someone speak who made the argument that when a person with a disability does not do well at a job, the problem is likely a bad job match, not that the individual wasn’t ready to work. I am inclined to agree with that statement.
Realistic is another killer concept, though this is not unique to individuals with disabilities. People are quick to tell others that their dreams are unrealistic. Want to be an actress? Oh honey, that’s not realistic. I’m willing to bet you have heard that yourself at some point in your life.
The problem with realistic for people with disabilities is that it is often applied to situations that are anything but unrealistic. People see the disability, and instead of rising to the challenge of “how can we make this work” they say “it’s unrealistic.”
Just like with any other individual, our role is not to decide someone’s goal is unrealistic, but to help figure out a way to achieve that dream. It may take a bit of imagination, and a willingness to not judge what achievement looks like. In fact, I think this is a huge obstacle for many parents (including myself). There is a tendency to go to absolutes – if my kid wants to be a nurse but does not have the academic skills to achieve that goal, then setting up procedure trays in the ER is just a token job. Looked at another way, setting up trays could be the fulfillment of that dream. This person gets to wear “the uniform” (scrubs), spend time with nurses and doctors, interact with patients, and work in a medical setting – all things that may attract that person to the medical field in the first place.
We have to be willing to see the dream from many different angles.
And last, never is an obvious one. How many dreams are squashed with a simple “never going to happen”?
Isn’t it widely accepted that failure is an excellent way of learning? Why do we deny people with disabilities the essential right to fail? I fail all the time – at work, as a wife, as a mother, as a friend. I also succeed. But those successes are the product of the lessons learned by previous failures.
We need to allow for the possibility of failure.
So here’s the challenge: how will you remove the concepts of ready, realistic, and never from your life and advocacy?