This is the third and final part of my mini series exploring the question,“Are People with Disabilities Contributing Members of Society?”.
In this piece I want to explore Intellectual Disabilities- what about the people who don’t talk or communicate in a way I understand? What about the people that are really, really different from me – are they contributing to society? Does their life have meaning?
Some people say that people with exceptional differences from ourselves are here to help us work on some part of our own spiritual/mental development. That in some way they challenge us to be more, do more, feel more.
That answer reeks of patronizing bullshit to me. Why should anyone be alive, save for their own sake? We all have value, we all are here to experience life for ourself. I refuse to believe that anyone is here for the sake of helping someone else’s spiritual development.
I believe every person’s life is their own. They are born and are alive to fulfill their own desires, needs and wants. They are here for their own journey, their own experience. They are not here for my own – or anyone else’s – learning opportunity. If any of us learns from one another, that’s a fabulous and delightful bi-product of this, but it’s far from their reason for being alive or their purpose in life.
Others like to answer that question by challenging the value of contributing in the first place: who says we have to contribute? We don’t have to contribute to have value! Why do we have to create a value-based society at all?
But I don’t agree with that either.
It doesn’t make sense to me that some people contribute and others don’t. I believe that we can all contribute within a value-based society. Perhaps it’s the decade I have spent working as a career counselor and in the career services industry, but I cannot divorce myself of the notion that 99.5% of everyone really wants to work.
I am not talking about chomping the bit for a 9-5 under a sad-faced pimply teenaged “crew leader” but rather, we all seem to have this yearning to be valued, to give in a way that is meaningful. To grow, learn, develop our skills and apply them.
The problem I think lies more in what is available for people to contribute to, and within our narrow parameters of what “work” and “contribution” consist of.
Have you ever watched Star Trek: The Next Generation? Well, in TNG, there is a Counselor on board who is an empath. She can sense people’s emotions and the Captain is always referring to her and seeing how something feels to her. Then, the chief engineer is blind. He “sees” by way of his visor.
Star Trek has long served as real inspiration for the tech-world – the iPad, small computers, hand-helds and flat-screen devices all came from inspiration from Star Trek, after all. I think career paths will too. I think that those types of careers – using skills that are not currently valued, coupled with technology – are what we are headed for in our real-life future.
Put simply, I believe we are headed for a redefinition of work by way of application of technology as well as a new sense of value for lines of work that may not currently exist.
Can you even imagine, for example, President Obama taking an empath with him to a summit, and getting advised on the state of everyone’s feelings?!
Jobs related to feelings right now are relegated to FruitCakeLand. We essentially have an entire field that is lying unexplored and untapped because we don’t attach monetary value or recognition to feelings… yet.
A possible feelings industry is just an example of a career field that so far has been untapped. As far as current career fields go, sure people with intellectual disabilities can and do contribute to pretty much every career field, from teachers to baggers and back again. But by and large, it seems to me that people with intellectual disabilities are shoved into boxes, and society tries to make them like people without intellectual disabilities. People with intellectual disabilities are being assessed and judged by a criteria that does not make much sense given what we do know about intellectual disabilities.
We assess people with/without intellectual disabilities according to our current value system. Our ability to sort, add, subtract, “critically think”. We don’t assess on kindness, compassion, empathy, courage. We can continue doing what we are doing, yes, but I believe that’s missing the point, the point being that while people with intellectual disabilities can follow along the lines of what people without intellectual disabilities do, they have skills that they can lead in that are currently untapped.
I believe people with intellectual disabilities are leaders in their own right.
But I don’t think we know all that much about intellectual disabilities, point blank, and I think we are missing the mark with how we currently assess and judge the capacity and skill sets of those with intellectual disability.
It’s like we are assessing an African Masaai warrior for his skill in navigating Finnish tundra. Or to use another analogy, it’s like we are still sitting around here in our caves with our stone axes and grinders and we’re saying to someone who can’t lift a stone ax that he’s useless because he can’t lift a stone ax. Fast forward 200 years and you’ve got a stylus and an ipad…and how useful exactly is the skill of lifting a stone ax?!
I think people with intellectual disabilities should contribute to society because I think that as integral members of society, they have the right and responsibility – not to mention usually the desire – to. But in all honesty, I don’t think the jobs that they will lead the way in have been developed yet, nor do we really know enough about the unique talents and skillsets that people with intellectual disabilities possess.
I know my answer is not satisfying. But that’s often the way it is when you are embarking upon a road that has not been well-traveled. It’s not satisfying because you don’t have clear maps, you don’t know the route and you don’t know exactly where you will end up.
But I believe that with courage, confidence, sensitivity, open ended education and by striving to empower people with intellectual disabilities, we will be opening the door to not only a whole new world for them but for a whole new world for all of us.
Just as a bird cannot fly with only part of it’s body, the human family will only be able to soar when all members are included and contributing.
Meriah Nichols is a counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one on the spectrum). Deaf, and neurodiverse herself, she’s a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.