Halloween, the time of year when people all around the country are busy planning their elaborate costumes. Wearing a costume is an opportunity to dress up like someone else. A costume is also used as a way to get noticed. Essentially a costume is a disguise of who you really are. I wear my costume all year round. My costume is what gets me the second looks, the stares and what I am often remembered for. My costume is my crutches that represents my disability, not the person I am.
I never really thought about this in the terms of a costume, but found this analogy fascinating when I read the following piece written by Jon Bateman. He wrote a piece entitled “12 Ways to Living with Confidence despite your Disability”. This was his fourth way.
“Understand that you’re in a costume all the time, but your disability is not who you are, it has much to do with your soul as your hair color. Unfortunately, people may project uncertainty, emotional pain, anger and sadness onto you simply because you appear to be in a situation they fear and do not understand. So, like many people, they will cope by ridiculing or trying to ignore what they fear. Do not be intimidated by this even if people try to avoid you or try to silence you because you are seeking things that make them feel uncomfortable.”
I couldn’t agree more with everything he wrote, I face it every day. However I am going to focus on how to shed the disability costume. As a full time crutch user, I am noticed everywhere I go, not for who I am, but for being the guy with the crutches. The crutches catch people’s eyes, they get me remembered and make people uncomfortable. My costume is the first impression I make. I can’t change this, so all I can do is find ways to get people to see past the costume.
My crutches have much to do with who I am as my balding hair, but it can be difficult to not let them define me. Every day when I press the elevator button at my office building, I know what to expect. The doors pops open and the unrespecting souls on the elevator, see me standing there on my crutches, they express a moment of panic and discomfort. Some quickly scramble to hold the doors open, others nervously dance around making extra space, what they all do is quickly move their eyes down my legs, trying to figure out what is wrong with me. In the meantime, I don’t require any of this to enter the elevator, I need nothing more from them than anyone else would need, common courtesy, so why do I get this reaction, I think it is hard for people to understand that I can live a normal happy life having to use crutches every day, it is assumed that I am incapable. This makes them feel sorry for me and there reaction is to either ignore it or over compensate with assistance, so yes it is difficult not to let my disability define me.
The best way I have found to overcome this is to make people comfortable with my disability, it is somewhat reverse psychology, if I find a way to acknowledge my crutches, suddenly people become more comfortable.
I have released the big white elephant from the room, maybe, I make a joke about the crutches, I have even been known to call myself the guy with the crutches, really I simply try to find a way to let them know that I am okay with them and so they should, when given a chance they are always surprised by what I can accomplish. My saying “Hey not bad for a guy on crutches” will evoke a chuckle that breaks the ice. People are uncomfortable because it is unknown to them and they are afraid to offend. I really do find that when I don’t try to ignore my disability people become more comfortable, its then I shed the costume, engage them in conversation and they see me for who I really am, if you have a disability, yes, in Jon Bateman’s words understand that you’re in a costume all the time, but also understand that is not who you are, be open about your disability and show the world the real you.