The television program 20/20 once featured a story about a girl with severe Autism who was non-communicative the first 11 years of her life. Her therapists believed she would never communicate and that she would always have the mental capacity of a six-year-old. It was not until she typed the words help and hurt on a computer while feeling sick one day that they realized that wasn’t the case. After a few more months of therapy, the girl was able to have a conversation with her parents through typing. Both were delighted, yet horrified, by the breakthrough because they had spoken about her as if she was not there for years, not knowing that she could understand them. Sadly, whether people have physical or developmental disabilities, others often look at them and assume that they are unintelligent, no matter how articulate they may be, because they have a disability. As the story above shows disability and intelligence are not necessarily linked. Often times, people look at others with disabilities and assume that having a disability is a setback. Believe it or not, some people with disabilities consider having a disability to be the opposite, an asset. This may sound strange to able-bodied people because it is difficult for them to understand how having a disability often teaches someone the importance of planning ahead and adapting.
A recent article in the New York Times discussed how with the right examples job candidates with disabilities can prove that they are right for positions because they can adapt to different situations more easily than other candidates. This philosophy can be applied outside of the workplace as well. For example, a movie recently came out about the first group of “special education” kids who went to space camp in 1988. Two teachers had to fight for the kids to be able to go because no program existed for students like them. The students ended up earning a number of second and third place awards while at space camp. It was said that the students did so well because of their months of preparation and ability to adapt to the unexpected. I can’t count how many people have spoken to me as if I were three years old when first meeting me because I have a physical disability. It makes me angry that people sometimes assume that I am unintelligent because I cannot walk. The two things are in no way connected, but some people don’t seem to understand that.
As angry as this makes me I am ashamed to admit I used to assume the same about some people with developmental disabilities. I went to school with a guy who had a severe form of Autism similar to the girl featured on 20/20. He was somewhat communicative, but would choose not to talk when he got angry. Instead he’d become very violent. After some incidents on the bus, school administrators asked his older sister to ride with him. It was shortly after that I learned how much he loved to read and spell. His sister would often spell words with him or let him read names out of a phonebook when trying to keep him calm. Over time, I learned that the ingredient labels on cleaning products contained some of his favorite words to spell. Anyone who has taken the time to read a cleaning product label knows how difficult some of the chemicals in them are to spell. I was put into mainstream education courses at age 6, have graduated from college, and still am not sure I could correctly spell some of the words this particular schoolmate of mine, who spent his days in the multi-handicap room, knew how to spell. When first faced with the fact that some of his abilities surpassed my own I was shocked and then after thinking about it more realized I was no better than the people who made assumptions about me based on my disability.
Having this epiphany made me realize that a disability, whether it is physical or developmental, does not impact a person’s intelligence, but rather the way a person learns and communicates. History supports such a belief. Some of the most influential people who have ever lived have had disabilities. For example, physicist Albert Einstein had disabilities and managed to completely change the way people viewed the world and universe during his lifetime. As discussed in the previous Examine This, having a disability is something that people cannot change about themselves. Furthermore, it is a natural part of the human experience that many people would choose not to change. With that said, making an assumption about someone’s intellect based on the fact that they have a disability is as unfair as making an assumption about someone’s intellect based on his/her race because the two things are not connected and cannot be changed. Remember that the next time you see someone with a disability and find yourself thinking that they are unintelligent. Then take a minute and remind yourself that whether he or she looks like it or not, that person could be the next Albert Einstein.
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2012 edition of the Access Center for Independent Living newsletter, the Accessible Community Examiner, which I wrote for the two and half years I worked there. The Access Center for Independently is a non-profit in Dayton, Ohio that works to ensure that people with disabilities have full and complete access to the community in which they choose to live.