But what if you’re disabled, particularly in a way that is readily evident to others just by looking at you? We live in a world that, for whatever reason, insists that conformity is not only preferred, but required, to be considered a viable part of society.
A person may be judged by the way one dresses, or the amount of cash one has in one’s pocket, or the car one drives, or the neck of the woods in which one lives. Even skin color is historically one of the most prominent barriers to acceptance and integration into the society at large.
We seem to have a million different requirements one must meet to be part of the “in” crowd, and the list seems to get longer and more specific each year.
So, what are you supposed to do in a world in which even the beautiful and successful are ridiculed for proving imperfect, like the recent fiasco over some unflattering pictures taken of actress Jennifer Love Hewitt on vacation with her fiancé. Not only does she seem to be a lovely person, but she’s attractive, famous, and very successful.
She’s never out on the town without underwear or running over the feet of unsuspecting photographers or policemen, and hasn’t spent a second in the L.A. County Jail. And yet just the mere shadow of a possibility that she might have an ounce of cellulite on her body ignites an all out furor.
Sometimes people behave like a pack of hungry predators scouting their prey for the weakest link among them, desperate to find a poor, unfortunate member who they can victimize and devour.
What is a poor disabled person to do when you feel vibrant and alive, but others see you as nothing more than a shell of a human, and an incomplete one at that? Where do we go to find the sense of belonging, of purpose, that every human has burning inside?
It’s easy to say that you can find it from family, from friends, from God, or merely from within, but in all practicality it’s an undeniable part of human nature to need validation from your peers. You simply yearn to feel like you belong in the world in which you live. I’ve lived on the outside of the world for all of my 42 years. I’ve been the center of scrutiny, the subject of scornful mirth.
For many, I’m like a living, breathing curiosity that should be mounted in the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum rather than walking among the populace. I’m the sideshow freak who must have escaped from a passing circus. I’m the somebody that’s actually a nobody, because “things” are not people. We all know that, right?
To the world, I’m like Pinocchio, desperate to be a real boy but knowing that I never will be. I’m not made of wood, but I might as well be.
That’s why, rather than looking for peace on earth, I simply want “a place on earth,” a little corner of the world reserved for the specialness that is me, where I’m fully accepted and appreciated for who I am, not for who or what I’m not. I want to live in a world where neither my height, my weight, the color of my skin, the contortion of my limbs, nor the presence of my wheelchair makes me the target for unabashed scrutiny and unspoken scorn.
And while there are people in this world that do not judge me as a thing, who treat me as a human being with feelings and emotions and talents and skills that are indeed a worthwhile contribution to the human race, when I look at the wide and wild world around me, those people and those moments they provide seem like fleas picking at the flesh of an elephant, tiny insignificant moments of good in a reality ruled with by bad.
So, how do we overcome this? Either we all have to figure out how to accept each other’s differences, or learn to conform to whatever is considered the correct and proper state of dress, appearance, standard of living, belief system, etc.
And when you’re disabled, conforming is normally not an option. Unlike the character in my story “Avatar,” from my book “Phoenix Tales: Stories of Death & Life,” we can’t just discard our bodies and switch to ones that are prettier, stronger, more conforming to the public standard of beauty and acceptance, bodies which people will easily love and adore.
All humans are flawed in some way, but those flaws aren’t as readily evident as they often are with the disabled. So society singles us out, puts us down, and leaves us out of the mainstream, hoping we’ll stay locked away in a dark room, cowed and forgotten.
But I’m tired of accepting society’s definition of me. I’m tired of being the incomplete human, the voiceless, powerless body, the waste of human flesh who’s thought to be a burdensome parasite on society rather than a valuable contributor to it.
I can see, I can hear, eat, drink, breathe, taste, touch, smell, think, speak, create, and live. I’m as alive as any other human, as much a member of humanity as any “able” bodied man. My character defines me, and my achievements etch my existence into the Book of Life so that no matter what others might say, it will forever be noted in the history of the universe that I was here.
Unlike the Barry Bonds record-breaking homerun ball, there will be no asterisk attached to me as a I sit in the Human Hall of Fame.
That’s why this year I’m asking Santa to, instead of bringing peace on earth, to bring me peace of “mind.” I want to be able to open up a box of recognition and watch as it spreads throughout the world, opening the minds and hearts of each and every person to the wonder of life in all its forms.
I want the star at the top of the tree to represent more than the one announcing the birth of Christ, I want it to be the light that switches on in each person’s mind as they are touched by enlightenment and learn to love unconditionally. I don’t want to be a standout in this idealistic world in my visions, don’t want to run it or be considered some extraordinary force within it.
I just want to an equally accepted part of it, to be one of the many cogs in the wheels that turn the universe. I yearn for the days when “good will toward men” truly means “good will toward everyone,” where no one is excluded for being outside some materialistic perception of what’s normal.
So, as we all celebrate this season and spend time with our families and friends, seek out someone who may not need a new pair of socks or big screen TV, or even a hot meal or a place to sleep, and give them a simple hug or pat on the back.
Let them know that they are appreciated just for being who they are, regardless of what the world may tell them, that they truly do belong in it.
Because sometimes all a person really needs is a little bit of love.
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