I’d like to apologize to my site coordinators for posting this blog so late. Truthfully, I had it written on time, but I didn’t post it. Something about it just didn’t feel quite right. So, in my usual fashion, I decided I’d “think on it” for a bit, which in many cases is just a nice euphemism for my putting off a decision.
I couldn’t put my finger on what didn’t feel right about the blog I was going to post. I have a younger brother with Down syndrome and consider myself passionate about disability rights — hence my decision to apply to DukeEngage Seattle in hopes of working at Disability Rights Washington. I was thrilled to be offered the chance to work at DRW and truthfully can say the experience has been all I’d hoped for and more.
In the blog I was going to post, I wrote about the ways in which my time at DRW has been a learning experience even though I’ve lived with someone with a disability for the majority of my life. I discussed language we casually use that’s connected to disability and mental illness. Most of us know not to use “retarded,” but words like “crazy,” “lame,” and “idiot” are hardly ever questioned. I use them all the time, though I’m working on cutting them out now.
Conversations at DRW are what really got me thinking about these words and their ubiquity. It was a profound realization for me and one I wanted to write about. But something still felt off.
This morning, I stepped into the elevator at the University of Washington Link light rail station with a half dozen other commuters. A man in a motorized wheelchair entered first. Upon entering, he informed us that the elevators are really to be used by people such as himself who cannot use the escalators or the stairs. He pointed out that the escalators were right behind us. Aside from an uncomfortable laugh from one of my fellow able-bodied elevator passengers, we remained silent for the ride down.
I’m embarrassed to say this, but in the interest of transparency I’ll admit that my first instinct was annoyance. The novelty of riding the Link to work every morning had long worn off and I just wanted to get where I was going without feeling guilty. Not to mention, I was headed to a disability rights organization. If only this man knew where I was going and that I have a brother with Down syndrome. I’ve pushed my brother in his own wheelchair when his hypotonia has made him unable to walk long distances and I’ve seen firsthand the way society limits him.
But, upon further reflection, I realized that’s exactly the point — I push my brother in his wheelchair. I see firsthand the way society limits him. Nothing will ever change the fact that I don’t experience it myself, and I never will. No amount of living with him, of having experiences like this one at DRW, or of educating myself about the issues will ever allow me to fully understand his experiences or those of others with disabilities.
I couldn’t post my original blog because I’m really not sure it’s my place to tell you what words we should and shouldn’t say. As much as I can try to understand the experiences of my brother or others with disabilities, I haven’t lived those experiences. So, yes, do think about the words we use and their historical ties to people with disabilities or mental illness — maybe even drop some from your vocabulary. What’s even more important, I think, is to listen to the people who live the experiences we don’t. With regard to the disability and mental illness communities, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we haven’t done much of that.
In the meantime, I’m going to look up laws and regulations related to elevator usage for the non-disabled. There’s never a bad time to get educated — and my calves will be looking great when I return to Duke.