The right to be ordinary
by Peter Tan. Posted on May 25, 2013, Saturday
I DREAM of strolling by the beach with my wife Wuan, enjoying the briny taste of the air and the sensation of waves lapping on our feet. I dream of traipsing jungle trails, embracing the greenery and soaking in the serenity bequeathed to us by Mother Nature.
Yes, I have dreams. I dream not of accomplishing great feats but of simple deeds. I dream of leading an ordinary life, doing ordinary things that ordinary people do. And yes, as a disabled person, I too have ordinary dreams.
It is unfortunate that society allows disabled persons to be anything but ordinary. It is structured in such a way that disabled persons have to rise above great odds to achieve a quality of life equal to that of non-disabled persons. It is also ironic that society applauds us for overcoming the barriers that they put up without much thought in the first place.
Mainstream society also has a tendency to glorify overachieving disabled persons. The sprinters with carbon fibre prostheses made waves at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. They ran faster than most people were able to. They were the darlings of the mass media throughout the games.
A short while after the conclusion of the games, a stranger approached me and asked if I was into sports. He told me he had a friend who was playing wheelchair tennis. He had a look of disbelief when I told him that I was not and proceeded to tell me how it could keep me active and fit, and many other things he assumed could improve my life. I was exasperated but forced a smile and took my leave politely.
Society needs to realise that disabled sportsmen are the exception, not the norm. Not every disabled person wants to or can become a world class athlete. Likewise not every non-disabled person can run and complete a marathon or be willing to put themselves through the rigours of preparing for it.
Disabled motivational speakers are rather popular too nowadays. They are the epitome of success. They overcame all sorts of barriers to live a fulfilling life. Non-disabled persons and disabled persons alike like to look for inspiration in their stories and philosophies.
On the other hand, the success stories of these motivational speakers can be a double-edged sword. They make other ordinary disabled people look insipid and lazy for not putting in that extra effort. Theymake activists advocating for a barrier free environment sound whiny.
I have nothing against them personally. I have no doubt their accomplishments were achieved through sheer grit and determination. What I am against is society using them as the yardstick to measure the effort of other disabled persons. There is a prevalent perception that if they can overcome, other disabled persons can too.
Some people are simply born competitive and go-getters regardless of whether they are disabled or not while the rest of us are just content with being Average Joes and Plain Janes. We thrive at being ordinary. Therefore, we must respect the freedom of each individual in choosing the life he or she wants without being pressured to emulate the achievements of other people.
I was once plagued with this overachiever mentality too. It made me miserable when I could not measure up to those standards no matter how hard I worked. I have since come to realise the errors of my thinking. I accepted the fact that I have done my best. I stopped pushing myself to do more than I was capable of. That change in attitude made me a happier person.
Disability rights advocacy is one of the several passions that drive me but it does not define who I truly am. I see it as a necessary undertaking to make society more inclusive. The changes from this endeavour in turn allow disabled persons like me to pursue and realise our aspirations.
It is tiring having to put in more than other people only to get the same results. I dream of the day when I can live an ordinary life without having to exert extraordinary effort.
This can only come to fruition when societal barriers are totally dismantled and society embraces diversity and inclusion. I hope I live long enough to see that dream become a reality.
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