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  • Mitch Blatt

Gardening Our Minds

In a way, our minds are kind of like gardens. The various things growing there represent our attitudes and beliefs, and they need the proper soil, water and sunlight to grow. If you give

your mind the right stuff, you end up with a beautiful garden, one that people look at and say, “I want my garden to look like that!”

But there’s a nasty weed called stigma—it comes in different varieties, but they all share an important trait: if left unchecked, it’ll kill all the other plants in the garden by stealing their nutrients and access to sunlight. We’ve all got some experience with that weed—whether it’s “other people think I’m ‘crazy’” or “I think these other people are ‘crazy’.” For the person being stigmatized, stigma can lead to things like discrimination, lower self-esteem, social isolation, and feeling like all people see is your diagnosis. For the one doing the stigmatizing, well, you’re cutting off that many potential friendships you could have had. Whether we take the garden as representative of our individual minds or of society as a whole, we need to pull stigma out at the root.

But what is the root? For some answers, we turn to wheelchair athlete and entrepreneur John David “JD” Duran for his take on this important question.

JD was born to Dado and Evelyn Duran in Portland, Oregon, and has dealt with aspects of stigma from a young age. At first, he could walk, but kept falling down. His parents asked a doctor about this, and JD was diagnosed with a progressive neurological condition known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease. While he was in grade school, he relied on an electric scooter to get around, which prompted curious schoolmates to ask what was up. “When they would ask if I could walk,” he says, “I would say, ‘No I can’t.’ Then of course, being little kids, they ask ‘Why?’ And a lot of the time, as a young kid, I didn’t know too much about my own disability, or at least how to explain it to other people, let alone to kids, to where it made sense." A close friend of his would joke that "Oh, he’s too rich to walk. He doesn’t feel like walking today," be cause little kids wouldn't understand a technical explanation.

Unfortunately, the stigma didn’t end with children innocently asking questions; it followed JD as he grew. In college, he got into the sport of wheelchair rugby, but at first, his dad was reluctant to let him do that, because he was concerned about safety—the players used to call it “murderball,” and it was a full-contact sport where they’d bump their wheelchairs into each other. He changed his mind after seeing JD practicing and having fun: “Oh yeah, it’s not that bad. Go play it. You’re enjoying it, you like it, go for it. I’m just here to support.” As part of CMT, JD’s fingers are gradually closing up, but he and Dado have

been practicing throwing passes and catching the ball, which has helped to counteract the degeneration.

After college, JD had to shop around at the job market—the stigma was more than just little kids asking questions. “With stigma,” he says, “there’s a lot of unknowing, but because of the unknowing, it’s also opportunities to learn and to educate others and communities.”

His disability may not have affected his work, but the stigmatizing beliefs and preconceptions held by prospective employers did. There’s initially a “forcefield” of stigma that keeps JD from getting a foot in the door without having to go above and beyond “normal” employees. Oftentimes, potential employers and coworkers have to be shown what JD’s capable of in the workplace—that his background, experience, knowledge, and coworkers are what matter, not his disability. He says that “the thing is, you have to kind of get past that initial forcefield of people’s stigma and preconceived notions of ‘Okay, there’s

a guy here with a manual wheelchair; he has limited use of his hands with his physical function. What can he do?’ and I think for me, I always have to try to show what I can do in order to try to make things work, or even just to—for lack of better words—get in the door in the first place.”

To counteract the stigmas he has faced, JD started his own marketing and communications business where he takes the lead on various tasks for client organizations: managing social media accounts such as Instagram or Facebook, updating and editing websites, creating newsletters, attending organization events, taking event photos, and supporting the communication needs of his clients. JD also has a unique set of clients, which is helping his business to grow; 80% of his client organizations focus on contributing to the disability community—INCIGHT is one of these organizations JD has been contributing his gifts and talents to on a weekly basis.

In addition to wheelchair rugby, JD participates in wheelchair racing; his dad doesn’t care whether he wins or loses, it's just about if he’s having fun, “I know his capability for doing the racing, and his classification is very different from other racers [...] because they are [...] stronger [...]. But for me, when he’s racing, I just told him, ‘I don’t really need him to win. As long as you’re there, have fun. Just have fun’.” JD needs help getting his body conditioned for long races and such, so his dad will often help him with exercises; this has the added bonus of Dado getting exercise too, not just his son.

Although some of us would be put off by answering question after question about our disability, JD has a somewhat different stance. “I feel that if someone came up to me and asked questions about my disability or my situation,” JD says, “it definitely wouldn’t be as awkward. If anything, I’d applaud them and give them props for wanting to educate themselves and not be ignorant. What I mean is, you can ask questions, but at the same time, if you don’t get a response at all, don’t be butthurt by it, ‘cause no one owes you a response. As long as you ask and you genuinely want to know, to learn, then that’s okay.”

He’s got some good advice for other people who have disabilities, born or acquired later in life: “Just because you have a disability, or just because your situation is different, that doesn’t mean that your life is over. You still have a life.” To elaborate, he says, “And

with me, I want to take this life and maximize it as much as I can with the resources or the opportunities that I’ve been given despite being in a chair, despite having a disability.”

In JD’s way of thinking, it’s just a matter of learning as you go. He had to learn. He had to learn how to play sports and work with his dad to get the equipment set up; how to talk to people with and about his disability. He had to learn how to go about his day, and how to set up for work or other things. With a wry smile, JD adds “But here I am, I’m just livin’ life. If there’s a will, there’s a way to do it, and you just gotta find that way and what works best for you.”

All of that unknowing leads to a lot of fear...and that’s okay. Ignorance is an opportunity for growth. It’s never too late to uproot some weeds and give yourself the chance to grow.

“I think in general, fear comes from unknown things, or not knowing what’s going to happen next, or being uncomfortable, but the thing is, that’s how you learn and that’s how you grow; you have to be uncomfortable in certain situations because being uncomfortable cultivates that growth, it helps you set those boundaries and helps you learn parameters about yourself or certain topics, groups of people.” JD believes that if you’re open to things—open to learning, and open to teaching as well; it’s a give-and-take—then you really have the ‘equation’ to help....For JD, it’s not necessarily that it will take away stigma completely, but rather it will make it lesser-than, and less scary, for everyone.

So there you have it. The answer to the big question “what is the root of stigma” is, as JD puts it, “unknowing.” The way to get rid of those weeds is to keep an open mind—be open to learning, which in my opinion is a lifelong process. Knowledge about different cultures and subcultures (disability, hearing voices, LGBTQ+, etc.) is the perfect groundcover plant to smother the weeds of stigma. Life is full of change, and I’d say it’s within our power to take the setbacks and uncomfortable things in stride, learn from our mistakes, and nip stigma in the bud. How can we keep our gardens healthy? JD says that we need to “rip stigma out at the root.” He also says that “I think that if people take the time and figure out what works for them to help lessen their stigma [...] I think that eventually, all of that stuff is going to add up and help you grow [...]” This is similar to raising and nurturing a plant—if you give the groundcover of knowledge the right soil, sunlight and water, it will smother the weeds of stigma and put you on “the right path to growing into the well-educated plant that you are.”

Once again, JD has some wise words:

“To rip stigma out at the, if we’re talking about stigma as this plant, I any other kind of plant, all other plants kind of—they’re nurtured and they grow in their own ways; you won’t raise a cactus and grow it the same way that you grow a sunflower or roses; I think that if people take the time and figure out what works for them to help lessen their stigma—whether that be reading about it, or listening to podcasts about certain topics and stigma, or whether it be implementing or being immersed in different communities that they want to learn more about, like disability or anything else that they’re interested in; I think that eventually, all of that stuff is going to add up and help you grow, the same way how certain plants need things to grow, like the proper amount of water, the proper soil, the proper amount of light and sunlight. If you take all those pieces and figure out how to best handle your own stigma, then I think you’re on the right path to growing into the well-educated plant that you are.” - JD Duran

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