I, like most other blind people, have been categorized as “Inspirational” by others. My inclusion usually relates to my having a Ph.D. From my high school class of 63 students, two others also have Ph.Ds. but they don’t get the inspirational designation, as far as I know. So why me and not them. I might add that their Ph.Ds. are in physics which I think is pretty close to being an actual rocket scientist.
Harold, Ruth Anne and I are all very proficient consumers of somewhat specific knowledge. We are able to ingest that knowledge, organize it and then productively apply it in real world situations. We each had the good fortune to get to do our knowledge consuming in a university setting where they award fancy degrees to the most proficient knowledge consumers. Although this may be seen as impressive by people who are impressed by fancy degrees, I doubt that any of us feel like we are inspirational or necessarily inspiring to anyone. We were just successful at what we were already good at: knowledge consumption.
So why do I occasionally get the inspirational designation? This is not a hard question. The answer is simple. Blind people are not generally categorized as people who can and do succeed and especially not as highly proficient knowledge consumers. In my case, “Inspirational” is code for “You did something that blind people like you are not supposed to be able to do.” It’s sort of like having pulled off an amazing magic trick.
Therein lies the issue. Having a handicap certainly prevents me and others with physical limitations from doing things that require the specific physical ability that we either don’t have, or only have to a limited degree. What does that include? Think of most any physical skill or ability and then significantly reduce one’s capacity related to that specific skill or ability. The reduction is the handicap. I cannot do X because the physical ability needed to do X is either missing or seriously limited. And here is the often-overlooked exception. I cannot do X because the physical ability needed to do X is either missing or seriously limited, AND there is no way to compensate for or substitute for that missing or limited ability.
So, let’s get back to that Ph.D. Knowledge consumption at that level requires a boat load of reading articles, books, and other stuff that doesn’t qualify as articles or books. Let’s say that I needed to consume a few million words and then organize them in order to feed them back to the professors in a form that they judged to be worthy of awarding the fancy degree. There are three areas here of interest: taking in the few million words, organizing them, and feeding them back in a scholarly format.
Here comes the magic trick. The people who think that I’m inspirational believe that reading, organizing and feeding back require being able to see, so I must have some extraordinary level of intelligence combined with special powers that enable me to pull off what seems to them to be impossible. That is what they think is inspirational. And were it actually impossible but I did it anyway, I might even agree with them myself. It would indeed be a good trick.
Fortunately, there are in fact ways to compensate for or substitute for my missing or limited ability, as is also the case for most other handicapped people. Not every time, in every situation, but much of the time and in most situations. It just seems extraordinary or perhaps magical but is neither.
So, what accounts for handicapped people being able to do things that seem extraordinary or perhaps impossible? Let it suffice here to simply say that it is complicated. Let it also suffice to acknowledge here that some handicapped people are more successful than others at resolving that complication to their benefit. The takeaway point here is that most people with significant physical handicaps can and do manage the complications with the outcome being that they are as capable of doing what they know how to do as well as anyone else who has that particular mix of knowledge and skills, and are often more capable.
Back when, I was seven years old and in the second grade. Yes, even then, I needed to deal with those complications. I couldn’t see and do but still had to do. Not doing just wasn’t an option. My issue was that learning how to manage those complications was difficult and frustrating. I was probably whining about it not being fair and how unhappy I was that I couldn’t see. That’s when my teacher provided the dose of reality that my seven-year-old self needed. She told me that I could keep whining and never learn how to manage without seeing or I could get busy and learn how to do the stuff I wanted to do. According to her, the payoff would be that, if I got good enough at doing that stuff, some day people would be eager to pay me to do that stuff for them. As a bonus, she told me that I would probably have my own office and an assistant who would do whatever I really couldn’t do because I couldn’t see. At the time, her best example was that my assistant would drive me wherever I needed to go. Teachers and mothers are always right.
That’s it. If you have a physical handicap, you still have to learn to do what you want to do, despite the complications. If you are working with a person with a physical handicap or are considering hiring him or her, First, consider how good they are at doing what needs done. Just assume that they know what the complications are and how to manage them. Ask what if any accommodations they need or expect you to make to facilitate their doing whatever they are good at doing. You may be surprised how minimal those accommodations may be. It’s likely that he or she has been preparing to do the job since the age of seven, or maybe even longer. Don’t be surprised to find out that this particular skilled worker is better at doing the job than you had ever hoped – How do they do it? Okay, I was just kidding. It’s really magic, downright inspirational.