Yesterday I was watching a graduation video of a disabled person and boy did the crowd go wild. Then I remembered my own and other disabled people’s graduations and it’s always the same thing! Standing ovations, cheering audiences, everyone is just overjoyed celebrating your accomplishments. An entire community sharing in the joy of a person who has a disability and I can’t help but wonder where that community was when I was tripping and stumbling my way to class… Where were they when I was refused entry into buildings and kicked out of campus residence because guide dogs weren’t allowed. Where were they when I was begging and bargaining for textbooks in accessible formats to be delivered to me at least before I had to write exams. When I was knocking on doors trying to raise enough money to cover my studies and the equipment I needed to make my life a bit easier and got rejected at every turn, there was no one putting a hand up for me then… Yet there they are drawing inspiration from my situation, saying things like “we are proud” and “it could not have been easy”.
Instead of giving me a round of applause, they should take a moment to hang their heads in shame because despite our Constitution and awareness campaigns, disabled people still receive very little support from our communities. I did not succeed because I had the same opportunities and resources as the non-disabled students, but because I became a problem solver, an activist, and I refused to listen to everyone who told me that my dreams were unattainable. I attended classes where half the things taught only appeared on projectors and I was covered in blood because I walked into things on my way there. I often wrote tests with nothing more than general knowledge and whatever information I remembered from class because I didn’t get my study material in time. I got up at 4:30 in the morning so I could get to campus before the roads got too busy to cross and walking between 7-10 kilometers a day was just one of those things. I was not given special treatment, often I wasn’t even given equal treatment. I experienced discrimination, a lack of accessibility, I was exposed to dangerous situations and I had no one to turn to. All those people with the tears in their eyes and their hands in the air for a disabled person who achieved something great, were nowhere to be found when I was fighting for the things they take for granted.
I see headlines such as “/Blind graduate beats the odds” and I feel sick because that graduate did not beat the odds… What disabled people do is far more impressive than beat odds that are unfairly stacked in favor of non-disabled people who cannot be bothered with things like accessibility and implementation of non-discrimination policies by those non-disabled people, in the first place. Disabled people overcome challenges presented by their disabilities and environments, we disprove myths and fight against stereotypes and preconceived notions of what we are capable of. We succeed with minimal resources available to us and we never give up. A disabled person with a goal, is a bit like a dog with a bone. We are determined and driven… and we are not afraid of failure. We are exposed to the worst of people on a daily basis and even though you would expect us to be some of the most cynical people to roam the earth given our circumstances, you could not be further from the truth.
We are who we are, not because we have amazing and supportive communities and people in our corners, but because we are good at standing up for ourselves and getting what we need. Those headlines should rather read something like “Blind graduate succeeds despite the total disregard for his/her right to equality by the non-disabled community”.
Disabled people are used to inspire others, our situations are exploited for money, medical advancements and sympathy. We are abused, abandoned and deemed worthless before we even had a chance to prove ourselves. We are told that we have to learn to be independent when what they really mean is that we have to learn how to be alone and if all those people who write articles about us and who dance on their chares when we succeed really want their words and their actions to mean something, it’s time they really get to know us… it’s time they walked the distance with us… it’s time they learnt what being disabled really entails! The good, the horrific and everything in between, because disabled people are more than “feel good” stories or charity projects and we deserve the same chances, opportunities and freedom of choice as everyone else. We don’t need validation and news articles to remind us that we can be great, we already know. What we need is for those around us to be reminded to remove the obstacles that make it unnecessarily difficult for us to survive and where we are not constantly at war with society and barriers designed to exclude us from experiencing normal lives.