Beware of First Impressions

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A couple weeks ago, about 75 volunteers and a handful of staff gathered for the CRC and RCA Disability Concerns Leadership Conference. We were treated to a talk by Dan Vander Plaats on The Journey of Disability Attitudes. (Follow the link to hear Dan and others talk about the Journey of Disability Attitudes.) Dan kept his audience eating out of his hand thanks to his powerful message that resonated deeply with his audience, skillful use of stories, empathy for objections the audience might have to what he was saying, and humor, mostly at the expense of himself and sometimes, good-naturedly, at the expense of his brother.

If you heard Dan speak, you might say that he has a speech impediment. He has an unspecified developmental disability that paralyzed one vocal chord and much of the nerve endings in the upper left side of his body. Sometimes people make snap judgments about others based on the way they look or sound. Dan said that people sometimes judge him to have a developmental disability because he talks differently than most people. (I'm ashamed to admit that I made this judgment myself about Dan, the first time we spoke which was by phone. Dan graciously forgave me when I confessed this to him years later.)

Yesterday, my assistant Virginia and I were discussing Dan's talk. Virginia said to me, "For the first few minutes, I heard the different way Dan speaks. But it wasn't long, and all I heard was what he was talking about."

It seems absurd to say that a skillful speaker like Dan has a speech impediment, and Virginia's observation helped me understand why. He does not have a speech impediment any more than a Dutchman who moves to rural Arkansas has a speech impediment because he speaks with a Dutch brogue.

Let's think about that Dutchman for a moment, Maas. Maas grew up in the Netherlands and spoke Dutch as his first language. He learned English in school, but everyone from whom he learned English, spoke it with a Dutch brogue. After moving to Arkansas, he heard people speaking with a much different accent than his own. But Maas didn't have an impediment, just a speech difference. So why do we say that Maas has a brogue and someone whose speech is affected by cerebral palsy or other factors has an impediment? I think it's just a matter of numbers. Maas has many fellow Dutch men and women who sound a lot like him. In fact, so many people speak English this way that we give it a name: "Dutch brogue." But when Dan speaks, it's a unique “accent”, all his own.

But for Dan, that accent has created significant challenges. When I sent him my first draft of this blog, he responded:

I really appreciate what you're trying to say because many people have said something similar to me, and I really think it's important to point out that people shouldn't dismiss people like me just because I sound different. In that sense, I'd like them to think of it as little more than an accent. However, I also can't get away from the reality that it is a disability, it has caused me to struggle throughout my life, just to communicate. Certainly other people's attitudes are perhaps the most disabling part of having a disability (as I said at the conference), but I still think of it as much more than an accent. It is, to me, unquestionably a disability. Perhaps all this means is that you might pose this situation not as 'is Dan disabled or not,' but 'when I think of it as a disability, how does that impact my view of Dan,' or 'when I think of it as an accent, how does that impact my perspective on Dan's capability/capacity/worth'? (Quoted from a private email by permission.)

I’ll end with Dan’s insightful questions. Let’s say that you hear someone talking who speaks differently than most people . . . .

If I think of it as a disability, how does that impact my view of this person?

If I think of it as an accent, how does that impact my perspective of this person’s capability, capacity and worth?

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Participant

Great blog post, Mark (from one who also was in the roomful of people captivated by Dan's presentation on disability attitudes a couple weeks ago).

I've heard various iterations of Dan's development of this topic in the past few years, all of which have been good, but the presentation at this summer's CRC/RCA Disability Leadership Conference was exceptional. It was so helpful and so on-target — not to mention so polished, so foundational to our work of advocacy, and so enjoyable to listen to. (BTW, in the 50 or so evaluations, it received the highest marks of anything that happend during the day and a half conference!)

I concur with Dan's discomfort about exercising care not to diminish the reality of a disability. Comparing a speech impairment/impediment to a Dutch brogue is helpful to a degree, but like all such comparisons it has a way of trivializing the realities and stigma of living with a disability.

Personally, I think I get what people want to convey when they say "everyone has a disability," but I also cringe. I've lived with an obvious physical disability since birth. I also speak in a monotone that may put some people to sleep, but I would not go so far as to compare that to Dan's speech impediment or even to Maas's Dutch brogue. It's just not the same.

Dan made two points in his presentation that I found particularly helpful in getting at this distinction:

• "Disability is not a blessing, but it is also not a curse,"

• "We are all disabled, but we are not all disabled."

Hair-splitter that I am, those distinctions resonate with me, even when I struggle to articulate them.

Community Builder

This is interesting in that it shows the continuum of disability. When I lived in Quebec my ability to speak French was a disability. However, I could (and did) move back to English Canada where I could function more easily. Dan doesn't have that option. I think his point about other people judging his "accent' ir right on. How often do we judge other people (especially immigrants) by their accent. We are trained to judge people quickly (first impressions) and that is the problem. Better to be trained to reserve judgment, listen and love as a spiritual discipline.

 

Thanks for this post.