In our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Equal. What does that word really mean? Oxford Dictionary defines equal as “(people) having the same status, rights, or opportunities.”
When I was a teacher, I strongly believed that each student in my classroom should have an individualized educational plan, not just the students who were labeled “special education”. And that is the way I taught. I got to know my students. I knew the opportunities they did and did not have outside the classroom in comparison with every other student. I learned about their cultures and attended cultural events the families invited me to, and I was aware of the family issues taking place at home that could contribute to a student having difficult days. I also knew what their individual passions were because that was the only way I was going to get non-readers and non-writers to engage in these essential building blocks of learning. Somehow, I had to level the playing field so that I could give each student the opportunity to reach his or her potential. It’s a lot of work to create 25-35 IEPs, and that’s just for an elementary classroom. In the world of teaching, we call this differentiation. When it comes right down to it, each one of us needs an IEP. Unfortunately, most people will never know we need an accommodation in order to have the same opportunities as everyone else. Not unless we tell them.
While the intent our Founding Fathers had was obviously one of good will (we’ll save that discussion regarding the morals they actually lived by for another time and place), let’s face it. We are not all created equal. Should we all have the same rights? You bet! Will this look the same for everyone? Not a chance! As someone with a disability, I notice this more and more in the world outside my home.
Today I was doing my pool therapy at Courage Center and couldn’t help but think about all the ways people are given equal opportunities at this center for healing. Of course, there are the usual accommodations that we see in other places: disability parking spaces throughout most of the parking lot so that the clients like myself who can’t walk very far can still participate, separate bathrooms for people who need help from a significant other to change in and out of their bathing suits, benches in the showers for people like me who physically can’t stand while I’m showering, larger showers for those in wheelchairs, and an electric button to push next to every door. Of course, it is strategically placed at a height where someone using a walker or a wheelchair can easily open each door, leading them to the opportunities they want to engage in on any given day. However, while Courage Center does everything it can to instill a feeling of independence in their clients, they also do something else.
For those of us who are there to work on our individual physical therapy plan, a client is allowed to bring someone with for free, in the event that they can’t access the pool or the fitness center on their own. Otherwise, what would this person do? Sit in the wheelchair by the side of the pool and wait? Wait for what? None of the rest of us can help them. We’re working on our own struggles. The physical therapists are all working with their patients. While I don’t need to bring a family member or friend with me so that I have the same opportunity to do my exercises, others do. For me to have equal opportunities, I need to use a flotation device around my neck, or I won’t be able to hold my head up. That is the only way I can participate in warm water therapy. Courage Center is definitely setting the standards for equal opportunity and has been for many years.
It’s hard to believe that the Americans with Disabilities Act was only passed 25 years ago. Where would we be without this legislation? Then again, the more I exist in the world as a person with a disability, I continue to be astonished by how little progress has been made to provide opportunities for everyone. Sure, we have the things I listed above: separate bathrooms, electric door openers, disability parking, ramps in most places, elevators in some spaces…There are so many more things that could be done to provide the differentiation many of us need in order to be “equal”. When was the last time you heard about something new being invented, with the intention of providing opportunities in public spaces to those of us with disabilities? In my 5 1/2 years of having Cervical Dystonia, I haven’t heard of one new advancement. Why is that? Every day is a struggle, and there must be a government organization that is supposed to be dedicated to creating solutions. If so, what have they done for us lately? If not, why doesn’t it exist?
My moral compass is very strong, and I have a hard time understanding why so many people oppose “equality” for all. Which is why WE need to educate our fellow citizens, our family, our friends, our pastors, our business communities…Because the truth is, they probably don’t know that we aren’t getting the same opportunities as everyone else when certain situations arise. Once again, we have to tell them! How else will they learn? Accepting unfair treatment isn’t fair to you, and it isn’t fair to all of the people walking in shoes very similar to yours who need you to speak up.
However, there will unfortunately be those people who choose to be complacent and accept having fewer opportunities than they deserve. If you’re like me, though, your eyes are open much wider to the fact that advocating for the same opportunities as everyone else is going to help everyone. This is not a selfish act. It is a way to open others’ eyes to the fact that solutions for creating equality will have to look and sound different. Stay tuned for Part 3 to hear about a recent event in my life that surprisingly brought this need for differentiation to light.