Focus on Our Strengths

By | 2017-01-13T20:41:12+00:00 December 1st, 2016|
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Tim GilmerSixteen years ago this month I edited my first issue of NEW MOBILITY. The total number of stories and columns that have been published in NM since that time is pretty close to 2,000, and what amazes me is there seems to be no end to unique stories about wheelchair users and others with serious mobility limitations.

A major theme is that most of the stories have been less about problems and more about successes in adapting to lifestyle changes. More about courage and persistence than tragedy or failure. And this has taught me something about human beings in general. I believe we all possess an innate ability to adapt and survive, but we only discover this latent potential when confronted with personal tragedy and long odds. Faced with a daunting future, we set about trying to invent a new one.

It takes time to adjust, but eventually each of us embarks on a journey to find solutions to our everyday challenges. Every day we wake with the same limitations, or in some cases new complications, but we persist in our quest to make the most of it. And we learn what it takes. Those lessons shape us, strengthen us and refine our character.

The odd thing is that the mainstream public often sees us as weak and pitiable, living lives of lesser value. I have come to believe that what they are really seeing is a self-reflected image, a projection of their own inability to recognize their innate strengths. So they regard us in ways that reflect their fears and insecurities. Movies often portray us (using fictional characters played by nondisabled actors) as pathetic beings who would be better off dead. Doctors and nurses see us as people who need fixing. And government programs focus on our limitations rather than our potential.

Now, with a new president soon to take office — a man who showed little interest in us as voters and who mocked a disabled reporter — we have a new challenge to overcome. Already (as I write this in mid-November), we have seen massive protests from other minorities who feel threatened as well. In the major city nearest where I live, Portland, Oregon, a protest march devolved into a riot when anarchists joined in and vandalized businesses to the tune of over $1 million. It was not a pretty sight, and the protesters, no matter how valid their fears, lost face, and more importantly, respect.

As a unique minority group, we need to focus on our strengths, our underused potential and our hard-earned adaptability. We need to advocate for programs and laws that emphasize what we have to contribute to society, not what we want society to contribute to us. We need to represent ourselves not as angry or needy, but as a growing resource, a population worthy of private and public investment.

Now is the time to remind ourselves and the powers that be that our civil rights, signed into law by a Republican president and enacted overwhelmingly by a bipartisan Congress more than 26 years ago, reflect our national strength, not our weakness.