Christy Herzing

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Throughout history, people with disabilities have been hidden away, abused, used as props, praised extensively for everyday tasks, mocked and simply been made to feel less than because we aren’t society’s definition of “normal.”

I would argue that “normal” doesn’t exist in a true sense. What’s “normal” for you will never be “normal” to me. But let’s go by the premise that “normal” is the real deal. What happens when you don’t fit society’s norm? All those things listed above and many more.

When I was younger, one of the biggest complements I ever received was, “I didn’t even notice that you have a disability.” I used to smile and relish in this compliment because I was young and I wanted to fit in with everyone else.

Don’t get me wrong, I know those who gave me that compliment meant it with the best intentions. What I didn’t know at the time was why, despite beaming with the compliment, there was this gnawing inside that I didn’t understand.

I know now it’s because deep down, I was rejecting the compliment. It’s taken many years for me to understand and truly believe that my disability is as much a part of me as my hair color or my height. It has helped to shape me into who I am. To reject that is to reject the life experiences that brought me this far.

I’m often asked, if it were possible, would I take my disability away and be like everyone else. It usually surprises people when I say, without thinking, that I wouldn’t change a thing. At one time, though, that wasn’t true. I would have given anything to be just like everyone else. I didn’t understand then what I do now: We are all different for a fundamental reason. If we were all the same, life would truly be boring.

I also realize that my longing to be like everyone else was, in large part, a response to society wanting me to be “normal.” I used to wonder why it was so important for me to be “normal.” After spending the past eight months digging knee deep into our unconscious biases around disability, I understand the reasoning better even if I reject its premise.

Unconscious bias is a bias we don’t even know we have. It’s rooted in our brain, and it’s based on our belief systems, our frame of reference and much more.

An example: Until very recently, the images of people with disabilities we saw in the media characterized victims or medical patients. Very rarely did we see people with disabilities in positive everyday roles, and if we did, they were usually played by able-bodied actors.

You may not know it, but these images at an early age combined with very little exposure to people with disabilities can leave a person with a strong sense of what is “normal” and people with disabilities will likely not even enter the definition.

What’s been most interesting to me as I’ve moved along this journey is discovering my own unconscious biases toward disability in general. In my early days, my simple rejection of disability as a whole was rooted somewhere deep within my brain because we’d been told disability is a bad thing. I, a person with a disability, had no idea those biases were hidden so deep inside.

I now understand why it surprises people that I simply wouldn’t change my disability. It has to do with the idea that being whole makes us “normal.”

Before you think all is lost, know that addressing conscious and unconscious bias isn’t easy, but being aware and present in your interactions with people with disabilities and anyone who doesn’t look just like you is the first step to recognizing and mitigating unconscious bias and pushing back against this idea of “normal.”

Christy Herzing is the Community Access Coordinator at Paraquad. She can be reached at cherzing@paraquad.org.

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