Reinventing Normal

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The word “normal” invites feelings of security and predictability that all of us depend on to survive. The real beauty in being normal is that it’s a concept that’s different.

What is normal?

In the morning, we all have established routines. We get out of bed, hop into the shower, and sit down for a bagel or a bowl of cereal before getting dressed to take on the day. Any deviation from this unconscious effort might not be considered normal.

For others, the morning hours work differently. If a person has a disability, a routine may also include help from a personal care assistant, a few therapeutic exercises and a feeding ritual. Although it looks vastly different from another person’s established pattern, it’s no less normal.

That’s the funny thing about the word “normal.” If it’s used in the context of something an individual is familiar with, it’s a comforting confirmation that a person is living up to others’ expectations. But when used in the negative, referring to something as “abnormal” becomes a label that indicates that something – or someone – is somehow inferior to the rest of us.

What’s normal to one person may not be to another person. While that’s an uncomplicated concept, many struggle to recognize that if someone handles day-to-day life differently because of a disability, it doesn’t mean they aren’t normal. Or, they aren’t a normal part of society.

Better yet, what if notions of what is, or is not, normal disappeared from the landscape all together? What if there were no misconceptions of ill-thought-out judgments about how other people interact in their environment, physically navigate space, communicate with others, or go about daily activities of life?

What if we discontinued using the word normal as a label?

Changing our minds

A. A. Milne, the famous American children’s writer who created the endearing Winnie the Pooh books, wrote a simple but profound quote for his beloved character that resonates today: “I was going to change my shirt, but I changed my mind instead.”

That straightforward statement is an eloquent way of saying that in the course of a day people choose how they’re going to view their own lives, the lives of others, and what they believe is right and wrong. Each new day represents an opportunity to make a small change, or make a life-altering conscious decision that will allow them to view others with an open mind, and more importantly, an open heart – free from judgment.

If people in mass numbers decided to make the leap by discarding notions of what’s normal, they would confirm that although others live very different lives, they are no more or less compelling to talk to or associate with. He or she would be able to stand in the other person’s shoes and realize that if something works for another person, even though it’s different, that it’s not to be considered normal or abnormal, it just “is.” In fact, they might begin to realize everyone lives differently.

It’s not always that people are being intentionally judgmental when they make a note about someone’s activities. They may say “that’s not normal” because they believe there must be a better way for a person to complete everyday tasks or interact with others. People want to see things get easier for others, not harder. While this is a laudable concern, it’s not especially helpful to infer a person is abnormal under any circumstances.

What makes a person think that an individual with noticeable impairment is not normal? What if the individual has a disability that is not readily apparent, are they abnormal? In many ways, we’re still conditioned to think that people with disabilities are somehow separate from the whole. But, why?

People with disabilities, or impairments, have always been a part of normal society. Just like young adults with colds, adults with heart conditions, teens with broken limbs, or seniors with dementia, some individuals have Cerebral Palsy. It’s a condition. So, why would we label any of these individuals abnormal to society? Or, judge whether they are normal by their health condition?

Today, we have more opportunities, and reason, to connect with people with disabilities than ever before in history. The advent of assistive technologies and computer applications, universal design standards and barrier-free access, nondiscriminatory transportation and accessible mass transit, to name a few, has provided new opportunities. In many ways, the playing field is finally leveled for all to participate, but the rest of us need to change our mind set, and ride together instead of finding ways to segregate, a concept we tried to do away with decades ago.

A part of the fabric

In America, we have always treasured individualism. Yet, what we have in common brings us together. Shouldn’t we be focusing on what unites, versus divides? Would we be better served? More productive? More compassionate? Less judgmental?

We see people with disabilities all of the time. They’re at the grocery stores, the local mall, parks, and at school. They’re students, they’re employees, athletes, heads of households and family members. They’re young, single, college-bound, married, with family, and retired.

With that in mind, a person without disabilities may have more in common with a person that has a disability then he or she realizes. For example, they may both have blue eyes, play the piano, collect stamps, have blond hair, watch “Grey’s Anatomy,” and decline flu shots. Or, not.

So, in that light, shouldn’t we conclude people with disabilities in society are normal? The ideal answer is yes, but the realistic and all-too-common answer is still no.

It has long been held that in order to qualify for some government benefits, or special education programs, a person has to qualify as being disabled as a means to administer assistance to those the programs were designed to assist.

Individuals with disabilities are often burdened with additional health care costs and technology expense than those without a disability. They require therapy, learning supports, home modifications, personal care assistance and vehicle modifications above that required by others. And, all too often, sadly, they are underemployed or unemployed even though they are fully capable of being productive in the workforce.

To help ensure persons with disabilities have access to equipment and programs that will allow them to fully participate in society on a level playing field with the general population, the term disability is defined to qualify individuals for assistance, not segregate them from society.

One of the reasons that separateness persists in society is that opportunities to engage in meaningful dialog are few and far between. With the advent of social media and the decline in the number of community gathering spaces, socialization takes on a different approach. Even so, communication devices, iPhone, iPad, and software applications are leveling the playing field and providing even the non-verbal with opportunities to communicate on forums, in videos, through email, on social mediums and through text. Rules of human engagement, acceptance, and compassion still apply.

The best way to break down a barrier is to do away with comments that are outmoded and outdated. When people can see qualities that make us similar as opposed to different, everyone feels better about participating in society and alongside each other. Suddenly, people are no longer able-bodied or disabled; they’re jazz lovers, stamp collectors, car aficionados, or political junkies. They’re all part of a larger group with goals and interests that have little, if anything, to do with having an impairment.

Sometimes it’s hard for people to think of the word “normal” as a label, but in this context, that’s exactly what it is. Labels serve only to divide, not unite.

Making choices

Like so many aspects of life, normalcy is in the eye of the beholder. What might be an extremely jarring series of events for one person could be completely fine to another.

Now, no one is suggesting that if someone is doing something that could result in him or her – or someone else – being harmed in some way is normal. Everyday methods of interacting, whether it is via a conversation between two people on a park bench conversing or two non-verbal individuals in their wheelchair using text-to-speech devices, are no more or less normal because the methods of communicating are different. To the casual observer, the friends using a wheelchair, a walker, or a brace should stand out no more than the couple on the park bench.

Is that concept pie-in-the sky? Perhaps it is. But it’s something that people should consider as society becomes more integrated and inclusive. For society to move forward and evolve, it has typically meant that some people must move outside of their comfort zones, use discretion, and choose compassion.

During the past several years, society has made efforts to increase the acceptance by spreading awareness campaigns and promoting understanding. Schools are, more than ever before, mainstreaming children with physical or developmental disabilities into conventional classrooms. Legislation and regulations promote inclusion, participation and accessibility.

But, unfortunately, these advances did little to change our hearts and minds. For real change to take root, people need to cast aside preconceived notions about what is normal, and what is not. By changing one’s mind, it frees a person to see the wonderful qualities in another individual.

Doing away with preconceived ideas about normalcy means people may not see an individual with disabilities who happens to be a good person. Instead, they will just see a good person.

Inspirational Messages

girls sitting at desk holding up an I can sign

Inspirational Messages

A message can be verbal, or something that’s felt in the heart. What all messages have in common is that they can influence our perspectives for better or worse. Luckily, by gathering positive messages, the bad ones can be cast away.