Could Disability Be A Positive Word?

Scientific research confirms that the words we use, the thoughts and beliefs we hold, and our emotional health have an impact on our physical well being. We are encouraged to use positive words as we talk about ourselves and our life and stay alert to the emotional tides stirring in us. The interesting thing is, words carry the meaning, emotion and energy we give them. The exact same words carry a positive or negative energy, depending on the speaker.

In this month of June, African-Americans celebrate Juneteenth; LGBTQ folks celebrate in Pride parades and festivals; and last Sunday the disability community celebrated the first Tony award given Ali Stroker, an actress in a wheelchair. These celebrations are associated with conflicts, sacrifices and struggles. June 19, 1865 was the declaration of the freedom of slaves in Texas and the emancipation of slaves in most of the confederate states. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the riots between police and the LGBTQ community at Stonewall in New York. The Tony is the culmination of not only the efforts of one actress but the many disabled performers before her denied access to the stage and the roles and the recognition deserved.

For many generations, white people in the United States have told others that the color of their skin made them less than and using the privilege of white skin, they took action to limit the social, economic and political power people of color could access. For many generations, straight people in the United States have told Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Queer people that they were flawed and to act upon their natural sexuality was shameful. Straight people using their privilege, took action to limit the social, economic and political power LGBTQ people could access and tried to use religion to deny even the spirituality of this segment of our population. For many generations, able-bodied people in the United States have told people with various obvious and not obvious disabilities they were broken and less valuable. Looking at people with disabilities with pity or at best compassion, able-bodied people were grateful not to be in those circumstances and then used their privilege to construct barriers that limit the social, economic, and political power and even physical access of people with disabilities.

Black Power, Gay Pride and Disability Pride would have seemed impossible concepts a hundred years ago. Calling someone black, gay or disabled for many years has carried a negative energy. When the energy of words describing our humanity is used so negatively so often in every arena of our lives, it takes intention and effort to shift that energy in our own consciousness. I believe it has to start within the consciousness of those impacted first. I have to make peace with who I am. Allies who are not impacted and therefore hold power denied the marginalized and who hold positive energy around marginalized human characteristics are important partners in social and political change. Still, so long as I continue to buy into the negative energy of descriptions of my own humanity, it will adversely impact my dreams, my belief about my potential and even my physical and emotional health. I have to believe in myself before I can truly feel supported by others.

It has been interesting for me to explore my bias around marginalized characteristics. I consider myself a consciously aware Ally and some recent testing reminded me to work at staying aware of subtle ways I may continue to be influenced by early and repeated conditioning from media, peers and the social/work environment. “Project Implicit” is a Harvard project and testing site that has been developed to probe for our bias in gender, race, sexual orientation, abilities and more. Testing revealed bias in favor of whites, despite considering myself a strong ally for racial equality. Testing also revealed a belief in male dominance, despite being a strong female professional. Interestingly, testing revealed I have a bias in favor of disability. Pretty much all of these results surprised me. At first I wanted to challenge the accuracy of the bias revealed which did not align with my perceptions of myself. Then came the news I had a positive bias around disability. It is more challenging to accept some results and not others.

One thing the testing indicated to me was simply that for me, disability does not carry the negative energy it might for people intent on oppressing or discounting individuals with disability. Just as African-Americans claim that part of their humanity with positive energy and LGBTQ claim that part of their humanity with positive energy, my disability tribe is coming into the power and positive energy of claiming that part of our humanity. Disability is something that distinguishes us but does not diminish us. We are making peace with our humanity. Other people wonder why I would be willing to identify as disabled. I guess the confusion arises from their negative bias around the characteristic. Unlike their perception, when I identify as disabled I am not considering myself broken, limited or less than anyone else. Using disabled as a positive word seems outside the realm of possibility for many. What may be most important is the ability of individuals impacted by disability to perceive that aspect of their humanity positively. What other people think of me is not my business. What I think of me directly impacts my health, wealth and well-being.

Ali Stroker’s acceptance speech at the Tony awards initially focused on her role as a pioneer. “This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena — you are,” she said. It is easy to say, “See she said ‘limitation or challenge’. That’s a negative self-image.” For me, she is using words in a way familiar to the audience and then redefining them by the way she lives. “You say I have a disability, a limitation and a challenge as a negative and yet here I am using my gifts, shining my light and being a whole person.” That is Radical Wholeness expressing without limits.

Radical Wholeness tells me the spiritual essence within me is exactly as powerful, sacred and whole as that essence in each and every person. To view my humanity, this temporary vessel for my Radical Wholeness, as something negative is what limits the radiance of my divine light. Not the vessel, not the opinion of others, but my own negativity restrains the potential within me yearning to express. Disability is a positive word for radical wholeness expressing.

Resources

You can test your own bias online at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.htm .

For a Unity perspective on Juneteenth read Reverend Jacquelyn Hawkins article http://www.unity.org/resources/articles/why-celebrating-juneteenth-matters-now-more-ever

For Unity’s LGBTQ perspective http://www.unity.org/resources/lgbtq

For more from Ali in her own words https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/12/theater/ali-stroker-oklahoma-tony.html

Ali Stroker wins the Tony for Featured Actress in a Musial!

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