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  • Mitch Blatt

Making Generational Waves: disability stigma throughout my life

Updated: Mar 7

In the current year, people with disabilities are still striving to have the equal rights & social treatment enjoyed by able-bodied people in America. We’ve made strides, certainly (such as the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act), but there’s still progress that can be made. It’s natural to be curious about things that you perceive as “different” or unusual, but too much ignorance and you can end up phrasing an innocent question in an offensive way. Through no fault of their own, able-bodied people at times have innocently asked

questions that imply people with disabilities are “lesser” or not-as-capable. Being a person with a disability myself, I've got a bit of experience with that.

Preschool and a Parrot

In 1996, I attended preschool at a private school outside of Portland, Oregon. As a student with cerebral palsy, I found it difficult to navigate the classroom and playground. There was a rainy fall day when my fellow two-year-olds and I were playing in the indoor gym. I wasn’t ambulatory—there was always someone faster and more agile who beat me to whatever the hottest toy was. I would often play alone. I looked around on that rainy fall day andsaw that my entire class was on their hands and knees. For about half an hour, we were equal, all playing in the same sandbox. Looking back on it, and maybe I’m reading too much into it, but to me it illustrates the innate kindness of human beings.

By kindergarten, my parents started recognizing stigmas that had been planted. On the first day of kindergarten, my parents asked a close childhood friend how my day had gone; with nothing but the innocence we’d expect of children, this friend said that, because I couldn’t walk, the other kids thought I was “dumb.” It only took a few short years to go from “all equal in the same sandbox” to “singled out and excluded.” My parents called the teacher to explain what the friend had said—which triggered a huge learning experience for everyone involved. The “big thing” at school the next day was Show-and-Tell. The presenter? The school district’s physical therapist Michele St. Marie. I don’t remember what I or the other kids brought, but Michele brought her pet Andy Capp—a colorful parrot. The kids were stoked on the super-cool, amazing bird they were seeing, and absolutely spellbound by the stories Michele told about it.

And then? She turned the bird around and explained that its legs were mangled and it was unable to boost itself off the ground in order to fly (an interesting coincidence: the common saying is “birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim”—the bird couldn’t use its legs to fly, and I’m unable to do the scissor-kick motion required to swim), but it was still the coolest bird. One by one, the adults in the room could tell that light bulbs had gone off in the kids’ heads. With just that one action, Michele St. Marie had busted the stigma of my disability and pushed the perspectives of an entire kindergarten class in a positive direction! The tone was set for my educational career. The other kids learned that just like the bird was as cool as other birds, I was just as smart as everybody else! Michele St. Marie was quite an incredible woman!

That wasn’t just a one-time thing; she’s been that incredible for over thirty years. Michele worked in Mon- tana before she worked in Oregon, and was initially working with “high risk infants and families.” When PL 94-142 (the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) was signed into law in 1975 and everyone was assured free and appropriate education, Michele says, “school districts began to see they needed to provide for many more students with special needs and in fact needed to figure out things as basic as ACCESS to education,” which led to an influx of physical therapists and occupational therapists.

Michele started working with Clackamas County in the late 70s, then moved on to West Linn and Lake Oswego school districts in 1982. She worked as a physical therapist in the West Linn school district until 2018, did a few years of counseling, then retired in 2020 for a mix of reasons—age, the COVID-19 pandemic, wanting to spend time with her grandkids, and a desire to have other adventures in life.

Lessons that Ripple

That’s how my educational career started, but that wasn’t the end of my experience with stigma. I can think of two instances in particular that do an excellent job illustrating the idea that stigma is learned...and can be unlearned.

Through middle and high school, I wasn’t bullied for having a disability. I was accepted and included, I’d like to think thanks to that second day of kindergarten.

On the other hand, my brother would get irritated when I’d ask for help finding the remote, or with the microwave—it’s not really his fault, he was a teenager at the time. There was a day my Health & PE class was doing an exercise where students wore different goggles that distorted their vision in different ways, like simulating cataracts, severe visual im- pairment, macular degeneration, etc. We were tasked with doing things like walking in a straight line, reading a clock, shooting a basket, and doing an obstacle course. My mom asked for my brother to be pulled out of class to participate, the end result being that the next time I asked for help with the microwave or finding the remote, my brother showed more compassion and empathy. He understood what it was like to see through my eyes, and his perspective had been pushed in a positive direction. This day was designed purely for education about various eye conditions, but ended up busting stigma within my family.

By the time I was in high school, my peers were driving. I couldn’t, due to my visual impairment; after school, I would wait by the three handicapped parking spots to be picked up. There was a very popular Driver’s Ed company in the school district; one afternoon, an instructor from this company pulled up to the school parking lot to pick up his new students, and he casually parked in a handicapped parking spot just for the convenience of its location—Driver’s Ed 101: how to abuse handicapped parking. Luckily, my mom saw what the instructor had done and gave him a piece of her mind. In an ideal world, no parent would have had to step in, the instructor would have known not to park in the handicapped spot in the first place, to not teach his students that lesson.

From Ripples to Waves

Prejudice has to be taught, or modeled; kids’ brains are like sponges soaking up everything and making connections between things. The teens and adults of today are the parents of tomorrow, and if we teach them to afford people with disabilities the respect innately deserved by all human beings, then they will pass that knowledge onto their children and create a “generational wave” that ripples outward for years to come. Positive change has to start somewhere; we’ve got to start in preschool.

This kind of thing is why we need organizations like INCIGHT, organizations that bust barriers, break stigmas, and engage the community in welcoming people with disabilities into the workplace. It would be amazing if every community in the nation had an INCIGHT to make ripples, waves and more that make the world a better place for abled and disabled people alike.

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