CBC First Person, May 30, 2021
“You’re a very big guy and awkward with the way you move. You have this large presence that is off-putting. If I had an opening and you were the applicant, I wouldn’t hire you.”
Those are the words that I heard at the age of 20 during an impromptu practice job interview.
Now, as a six-foot-six guy who is nowhere near petite, I was used to hearing commentary about my size. What really shook me were the “awkward” and “off-putting presence” remarks.
Over the years, everyone to whom I have told that story has said that person was just being a jerk, and that I had nothing to worry about.
Still, even if it was one person’s opinion, those words got to me, because they played into my fears that my invisible disability was not as invisible as I had striven to make it.
In elementary school, I was diagnosed with a mild case of cerebral palsy that was likely caused by complications that happened in the delivery room when I was born. In my case, my condition has no effect on my actual intelligence but negatively affected the development of my speech and my fine motor co-ordination.
At the age of three, I struggled with basic co-ordination and could not yet talk.
However, thanks to some timely occupational, speech and physiotherapy during my early development, I was by age five a year ahead of my peers in speech development. Outside the occasional stammer, the lack of any natural athleticism and the need for accommodations to compensate for my godawful penmanship on tests, my condition became concealable for the most part ‘ and more so as I got older.
From that point forward, if you looked solely at my achievements, you would not suspect there was anything “wrong” with me.
I graduated from high school at the top of my class, and won a $16,000 scholarship to Memorial University. My peers picked me as their class valedictorian when I graduated from Memorial University with an honours degree in commerce. A year later, I earned the distinction of fellow of the school of graduate studies for outstanding academic achievement while completing my master’s degree in employment relations. I now have a good public sector job in my field of study.
Plagued with the stress of stigma
However, these successes alone do not tell the full story.
Throughout every step of my life, I have been plagued with the stress of the stigma of my condition. My experience and academic researchers have shown that people tend to stereotype people with disabilities by taking traits they observe from one person with a disability generalizing them to all people with that disability type. In other words, people tend to have a narrow view of how people with disabilities are and what they are capable of.
Therefore, there was always an internal dilemma of whether to disclose my condition to friends, classmates, professors, co-workers or bosses, particularly as I got older. Disclosing my condition to someone too early or at all could easily change how they perceive me.
I wouldn’t be the smart guy that could be trusted to ace the tough assignments or handle a public speaking role.
Nor would I be the friend they could come to for help with school or work problems.
I would simply be a guy who is doing surprisingly well for somebody “like him.”
This fear of being typecast wreaked havoc on my self-perception and self-image for years. Growing up, I had an incessant need to prove myself to others to justify my own self-worth and I took every criticism to heart.
At the start of university, I was reluctant to use the accommodations I had for writing tests and kept the fact I used them from my new friends as long as possible. It was not until graduate school when I was completing research on the duty to accommodate those with disabilities that I finally found a true level of peace with my condition.
Let’s look at barriers
That is basically my story of growing up and coming to terms with my disability in this province. So why am I sharing it and why is CBC giving me a platform to do so?
The main reason is to raise awareness about the circumstances and hurdles faced by people with disabilities and spark a public conversation about inclusion.
The ability of people with mental and physical disabilities to participate in life activities is not hindered only by physical barriers such as a lack of wheelchair ramps.
Social attitudes created by a lack of general understanding of disabilities are also major barriers to accessibility for people with disabilities that tend to get overlooked. These attitudes, formed in the absence of knowledge, lead to negative stereotypes of people with disabilities. In turn, these make it more difficult for people with disabilities to discuss the issues they face because they have been stigmatized before they start speaking.
Therefore, issues that are important to people with disabilities such as accessible physical environments, accommodations in the workplace and the availability of assistive technology struggle to gain traction in the public discourse.
That’s why it’s important for people to talk about disability more openly. To erase some of the stigma surrounding disability in this province, we need to raise public awareness and knowledge about people with disabilities and the problems they face to change social attitudes.
If sharing my story helps that process, I will gladly accept the consequences of being stereotyped – especially if it helps someone avoid the stresses I grew up with.