Working with people with disabilities for many years gives me an appreciation both for the frailties and strengths people possess.
I work and live most hours of the day and evening with people who have mental illness, developmental disabilities, those who suffer from trauma, victims of abuse. I’m very familiar with the many statistics accompanying this part of the world.
One in twelve people have a mental illness, one in 65 males and one in 80 females have autism, one in seven couples suffer from infertility, one in every 100,000 births… the list is endless. But then again these statistics are always talking about the other people, the rest of the world.
They couldn’t possibly be referring to me.
Or are they?
Is it possible for any person to go through life without ever experiencing an emotional setback, a physical handicapping condition, a medical procedure that leaves more than a 3″ scar. Yet these statistics are not counted in the same way as others that bear the stigma of disabilities, the shame of being victimized.
How do our personal periodic setbacks bear resemblance to life bearing illnesses such as bi polar disorder, depression, drug addiction, or Asperger’s Syndrome?
Disability is defined as a condition (such as illness or injury ) that damages or limits a person’s physical or mental abilities. People who suffer from mental illness have had what we refer to ‘normal life’ until one day everything collapsed. Whether it was a gradual deterioration of their mental state or what is commonly referred to as a nervous breakdown they ended up dealing with ‘broken souls’. Some people require long term psychiatric care while others are able to care for themselves at their natural environment with medication and psychotherapy. But no matter at what level of handicapping condition one finds himself or herself, they all lose something very valuable to them- the ability to be normal again, just like the rest of us.
What is normal?
What does it mean to be like everyone else? I wondered. So, I asked myself , what do I want in life? Easy… I want a family of my own, a place to call home, a good job and friends.
Then I asked few of my patients the same question and the answer was, easy to guess, similar. We all want the same things. So how are we different?
Or should I ask, are we really different?
Possibly our abilities to absorb, to deal with stress or everyday difficulties are a bit greater than it is for the disabled person, but still- many people with disabilities are capable of doing and achieving.
One of my patients is a comedian, and he uses stand-up comedy as a tool to deal with his disability and at the same time to increase awareness in society. He explained his illness to me in a way I will always remember and share. He said ” schizophrenia is not ME, it does not define ME. Schizophrenia is something that I have that controls a small part of me”. He is happy to do what he loves the most, making people laugh. He has a loving wife and a child and most importantly, he does not look at himself as different; quite the contrary, he believes that his mental illness inspired and taught him to be funny and therefore, happy.
I asked him why he feels that he needs to talk about his disorder and increase awareness of who he is? He said, “because I want to show you that you, the normal ones, are no less or more disabled than us. Those who don’t know are less able to understand “. He shared with me that he feels more disabled when he speaks to people who don’t understand his illness they may have heard the term but can’t absorb who he truly is.
How capable are we of understanding differences and disabilities? What does it say about us?
My husband is a lecturer in Bar-Ilan University. He was invited to lecture to a group who are physically handicapped on Marketing and Advertising. That evening he returned home very emotional. He told me that when he walked into the class, he saw everyone in wheelchairs, hearing impaired and with other disabilities. He was concerned how to speak to them so that he will be understood. As the lecture progressed he realized that not only was it going well but also his audience were able to answer questions that his students who majored in Marketing could not. He was taken by their ability to focus for over two hours, despite their disabilities, participate and take in everything he said. He admired their motivation to learn and advance themselves despite their physical challenges.
He kept thinking to himself throughout his lecture would he ever be able to do that if he was handicapped? I jokingly reminded him how challenging he is when he only has the flu. That made him realize how little he knows about disabilities and much more he wants to know.
He was certainly happy that he had the opportunity to meet all these individuals.
Following my husband’s experience, our conversation proceeded to question, aren’t we all handicapped in some way?
There is no doubt that we all, as humans, experience stresses and difficulties in life that make us handicap in one way or another. For one person it may be a long term illness that requires us to undergo treatments and keeps us in bed for long term. Others may experience tremendous stress due to a financial crisis that keeps us home away from friends and social relationships. Or the loss of a job that may throw us into a temporary but real depression.
To a large extent our ability to deal with a dis-ability may depend on how much we are aware of, accept, and know how to deal with those difficulties. As Dr. Patricia Deegan, a psychologist and a researcher and who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia, said so beautifully “people need to have the dignity of risk and the right to fail”.
Dorite Shabi is a clinical psychologist in private practice and works as an administrator at Marpeh Lenefesh.