Disabling Stereotypes

When I was eleven I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. An inflammatory illness, Crohn’s requires medicine and special care to manage, and affects my physical well-being on a day to day basis. But overall, the disease does not define me, a truth that people often fail to realize. Just the other day, a friend asked me why I was not in class the day before. The answer was simple: I was at a doctor’s appointment because of my condition. I then had to elaborate on the nature of Crohn’s disease, and the conversation immediately became uncomfortable as my friend looked awkwardly at her feet and a silence descended between us. The friend, as if she felt responsible for my condition, quietly replied, “That sucks.” She was right—having Crohn’s disease does suck, in all honesty. But moments like these prove how blithely unaware so many of my friends and classmates are of how diseases such as Crohn’s really affect their recipients. I am not a product of Crohn’s, and although it has affected many areas of my life, my personality would remain the same whether or not I was afflicted by it. We as a society need to realize that people with conditions similar to my own are by no means defined by their illnesses, and should be treated no differently as a result. Those who have visible disabilities are victimized every day by passing strangers and friends alike to a much greater degree than I have ever experienced. When you walk by someone with a visible condition on the street, do you, just like many people in our society do everyday, avoid eye contact with the afflicted? Do you sneak a shame-filled glance at their disability? These are both common reactions. Unfortunately, the average onlooker fails to recognize that the disabled individual is more than just a product of their condition. They don’t see past the exterior appearance and recognize the personality within. It is unfair and must be changed. Many people have disabilities that are not nearly as obvious as tetraplegia or leprosy, and these individuals are often much less vicitmized. You may not realize it, but people with disabilities are everywhere within our community. According to the 2000 U.S. Census on Disability, nearly 20 percent of our population is afflicted with one or more disabilities. In most cases, these citizens are not hindered by their conditions, and perform the same role in society as any other person. “Workers with disabilities are rated consistently as average or above average in performance, quality and quantity of work, flexibility and attendance,” said the U.S. Department of Education. Those with disabilities are often just as capable or even more capable than their unaffected peers. Clearly, the conditions they may unfortunately possess do not define their ability in the workplace or as functioning members of society. Just by understanding the statistics, it is obvious that people with disabilities are a part of every facet of our society and have a say in the decisions that shape our community. You don’t treat your teachers, lawyers or doctors differently than your peers, but statistically, some of these important figures must have debilitating conditions. If we can treat those with invisible disabilites as if the disability did not exist, then we can do the same for those who have more obvious disabilities. In short, we as a nation do not understand that those afflicted are not different or worse people because of their disability. As a disabled person myself, I have witnessed these attitudes toward disability first hand. I have completely accepted my condition, and am not ashamed to openly discuss it with others. Sometimes, my friends will try to ignore it completely or will smother me with pity, raising their voices an octave and using the classic line, “That’s so sad.” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that before. My dorm mates still appear uncomfortable when they see the many bottles of prescriptions that line my dresser. But these reactions are silly and only serve to create a divide between me and my peers which should not exist. My personality did not change after I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. It was certainly a difficult and shocking experience, but I am still the same person. I feel that as a community, we need to come together to support the disabled, rather than group all those clearly affected in a box and push them to the side. We cannot pretend that physical disabilities do not affect our population because that will only alienate those who possess them. However, we also cannot let a disability stand in the way of someone’s true personality or capability. Disabilities, whether visible or not, should not cloud our judgment when it comes to community members’ value in society. Am I less of a person, or someone worthy of your pity or special treatment, just because I have Crohn’s disease? No, so do not treat me that way. Tom Daly is a Junior from Weston, Mass.