Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"Us" versus "Them" Mentality

First, I'd like to apologize for being MIA! College starts up again for me on August 27th, so I've been busy with friends, school stuff, and soaking up the last days of summer. Now on to the post...this is something that has bothered me for a while...

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"You don't look SPED," some people say, referring to the fact that my cerebral palsy isn't immediately evident when I'm not standing or walking.

Is that supposed to be a compliment? Since when is "SPED" a word, and since when is it okay to call anyone that?

It bothers me to death that many people, especially those who are around my age, have that "us" versus "them" mentality. They're terrified of risking their popularity by associating with people who have special needs.

I saw this mentality in the hallways at my high school. Someone with special needs would wave or smile at another student, and that student would duck her head down, pretending not to notice. How difficult is it to wave back, people? If being popular means that I have to treat others as though they're less than human beings, I'd rather be unpopular any day.

I saw it in the classroom, when the teacher asked students to get into groups, and the kid with autism was left without a group. I leaned over and invited him into mine, but what struck me the most was the body language of the other students in the class. Their backs and faces were turned away from him, almost as if they were making an effort not to acknowledge his presence.

I saw it at a dinner party, when no one bothered to strike up a conversation with a girl who had Down Syndrome. I spent the next three hours talking to her about her life, and all I can say is that their judgment was their loss entirely. They missed an opportunity to talk to a girl who is so, so much more than Down Syndrome. She is a basketball player and a college student, she loves to spend time with her boyfriend, and she has an awesome sense of humor. Together we discussed our favorite movies and TV shows, reminisced about high school, and laughed about the stark differences in our sixteenth birthdays (I spent mine studying for a biology exam...she spent hers with her friends in a limo!). In short, if people had thrown away their prejudices and spent just ten minutes to get to know her, they would have realized that she isn't so different after all.

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And I saw this "us" versus "them" mentality again recently. Someone was talking about a mother and her child, a boy with a cognitive disability.

He was referring to the boy as his mother's pet.

"So the lady's pet starting crying, and...," he said, laughing to himself. That's when I stopped listening.

"Her what? Did you just call that boy her pet?" I cut in. The words tumbled out before I could even think about what I was saying. Because that hurt. Perhaps if it had been a stranger, I could have written it off as ignorance...cruel ignorance, but still. It wouldn't have stung so badly.

But here was someone that I care about, insinuating that people with disabilities are somehow worth less than those without them.

"That's cruel," I said. "That boy is just as much of a human being as you are."

He looked at me in stunned silence for a moment, then nodded and apologized. Then he continued on describing his day. but I couldn't bring myself to focus on his words anymore.

What if you were that boy? I wanted to say. Would you value your own life less than those of other people? What if you desperately needed people to understand you, but you just couldn't get your tongue to form the words to explain your feelings? Before you deemed this boy as less than a human being, did you take a moment to look into his eyes? Did you see that he is a person too, a person whose spirit is perhaps a million times stronger than both yours and mine because of the challenges he must face every day to accomplish tasks that we take for granted?

And some of the passion that I have for this topic stems from my personal experiences. I know firsthand how much it hurts to be branded as "them." After they've seen me walk, some people won't speak to me or make eye contact. Others talk to me in a condescending way, using a cutesy voice as if I'm four years old instead of a teenager. By doing this, they're distancing themselves from me, trying to accentuate our differences and reinforcing that "us" versus "them" mentality. I used to let that make me feel inferior, until I realized that I am not at fault for their mentality.

People with disabilities, myself included, are not worth less than those without them. I am not less of a person because of my CP. We're all people, and we're all in this crazy, broken, awesome world together. "Us" versus "them" is an illusion. There is no "them."  

There is only "us."

7 comments:

  1. Kerry, good luck back at school xx your writing makes me cry every single time as deep down I know all of it is real and true xx if I think back to before Cooper I have a few moments of being uneducated about disability when I was in highschool. I never ignored anyone just didn't fully appreciate where particular people came from or what their disability meant. It was not until I was in grade ten that integration even came into schools here really. So early 90's. I always believe coops will teach others in school way more than he will learn from the curriculum!

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  2. This post is absolutely outstanding. My daughter has CP and your words mean SO MUCH to me. Thank you for writing this! (I found you via Love That Max.)

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  3. Kerry,
    You did it again, my awesome friend. Your post makes me say "YES YES YES there is no us and there is no them" while also remembering situations in my past when I felt uncomfortable in not knowing what to say (but OMG please I hope that I always took time to talk to everybody even though I know, now, that I didn't). May I, and everybody who reads this ALWAYS alwaysalways take the time to talk to those who they don't know what to say to. Maybe that's the thing. Maybe the thems aren't avoiding because they feel more than...maybe the thems are avoiding because they don't know what to say. If that is the case, your words, and Tucker's maybe-almost-words will bring them to being "us." For always and for better. Thank you. Your words, my awesome dear almost-not a teenager-anymore friend, will change the world.

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  4. Just found your blog via Love that Max... I'll be back. Good luck at school. Dexter has CP (quad distonia) and it's great to read your views. Thanks

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  5. I got here through Love that Max.
    I have a son with a different disability, a vision problem. It is not the same, and he is young, but reading your post brought tears to my eyes.
    I wish you luck at university.
    You really touched my heart.

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  6. I can so relate to this. Unfortunately, even other people with disabilities do this. When I was at the schol for the blind, I was looked at as "them" because I'm autistic. I treated an intellecutally disabled girl as "them" myself and quite badly bullied her. Now that I'm an adult, I see people with high-functioning autism talk about lower-functioning autistics like "them", too. The Dutch autistic persons' society wants only "high-functioning adults". I refuse to be a member even though by the technical definition of high-functioning, I qualify. So thanks for sharing this article. I'm goin g to follow your blog.

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  7. Do you know the musical RENT? Because all I have in my head right now are the lyrics from No Day But Today <3

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