It’s Christmas (almost)! And my gift to you is a guest blog from my friend and colleague, Christine Quaglia. She’s a philosopher, a writer, a poet, and perhaps even a bit of a mystic, among many other things. Right now, she is a Ph.D. candidate, whose research is focused on the perception of self in the face of disability. She also happens to be in a wheelchair, which is perhaps a propos of nothing but it does give her incredible insight into what it means to have a disability (whether it’s visible or not), in a world that isn’t always quite sure how to think about them. She talks here about self-esteem, self-acceptance, what it is that makes each of us uniquely worthwhile and valuable in the world, and how we can nurture that in one another (particularly in our kids with disabilities).
One-of-a-kind Souls (by Christine Quaglia)
It was Pablo Picasso who said, “I used to draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like a child”. In that one sentence Picasso perfectly captures the moment in life when we all know who we truly are and live in full awareness of our one-of-a-kind souls. There are no questions, no doubts, no what ifs or could have beens – just a wide open field in which all things are possible. But then, childhood ends and, if you are Picasso, you start to draw like Raphael and, if you are the rest of us, you start to wonder “Who am I”, “Why am I here” and “What do I need to be doing”. If you are lucky (again, like Picasso) you return some day to that natural state, to that field of all possibility but, before getting there, some growing pains are guaranteed.
So why does this fragmentation of self occur? What separates the child who just knew how to be from the person in the mirror? As it turns out, there are myriad reasons for why one can become separated from their essential nature and one of the big reasons has to do with trying to reconcile who we know ourselves to be, and how we best accomplish our goals, with who we are told we are, and how we are told to do things, by the larger world.
That experience is particularly poignant in the face of disability as it is one thing to have an invisible disability and to have to ‘out’ yourself when you need to do things differently, but, another thing altogether to feel one way on the inside, to know how you learn and think and process and to never have that image reflected back to you by the rest of the world. Or, worse yet to have those feelings, the things that you know to be true for yourself squashed, ignored, or, worse told are wrong and cannot be. What kind of message does that send? The kind of message that tells you there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to be.
Are there differences in what this fragmentation looks like for a person with a visible disability compared to the person whose disability is invisible? You bet. The person with the visible disability may be told they “look healthy” which implies they were to have looked sick. For the person with the invisible disability, like a learning disability, it may be being told “Oh, really? But you seem so smart” implying the person was smart but the acknowledgment of a learning disability has suddenly produced its opposite.
Now, the student who needs different tools by which to accomplish their learning becomes viewed not as an opportunity to be embraced but rather a challenge to be feared and those feelings become internalized. Instead of having strengths channelled, weaknesses are emphasized and those students are asked why they cannot be ‘more like everyone else’. And there it is: the first crack between what that student knows to be true for them and what they think they need to do in order to fit in and survive.
So, what does the student in that situation do? Maybe they become sullen and retreat, or, display anger, fear and frustration as they struggle to be, you guessed it, more like everyone else. The question for educators and advisors becomes how do we help those students to reconcile the truth of their reality with the perceptions of the world and the answer is: we don’t. Not now. Not ever.
The central role and function of educators and education should be to help students embrace how they do things and to show them the illusory nature of sameness and the truth of difference. We can show students that it is no sign of health to become adjusted to a sick society and, not only is sameness illusory and irrelevant but that there can be freedom in that knowing. The kind of freedom which allows for the recognition that we are all unique, special and in possession of a whole host of gifts that can be of service, value and contribution to the world. Our job, our best work will be done when we can show a student the way past self-doubt and help them to understand that their disability, and how they may have to do things, says nothing about who they truly are. The only thing that says that is their one-of-a-kind soul and that is already perfectly fine just the way it is.