Not a disability issue

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On the weekend 18th and 19th January 2013, I visited Pittsburgh again, where I participated in the One Young World Summit 2012, in order to meet and talk again with Josie Budger , one of the delegate speaker at the summit. This is because, I felt I should talk with her in person, not at a large floor surrounded with other audience. On Saturday, we had dinner together with her friends, on Sunday had lunch and dinner, and attended an event which she organizes for empowerment and networking of young adults with disabilities and their parents in Pittsburgh. Time passed so fast, but it was so nice and dense time to talk with her.

At the summit, I threw a question to the audience at the floor with a somewhat cynical perspective that questioned relative different attitude and reaction from audience to ‘healthy’ and ‘disabled’ persons (I wrote one essay about that here). She received a loud approve and standing ovations, much louder than other delegates received, and I asked a question to the floor “Why did you made such a quick and loud standing ovation, while you didn’t do that yesterday? Was it just because her speech was wonderful… or, was it because she has a disability?” Of course her achievement and speech, and other delegates’ ones were great per se, but the relative difference of the reaction to her speech and the other delegates’ speeches by the audience sounded reflecting their different attitude toward ‘disabled’ person (though it might be unconscious) It’s not only about her or this case at the summit. It happens in a situation related with any other minority or disadvantaged issue. It is a kind of power relationship in which a majority or dominant group, having enough and to spare and with a sense of charity, welcomes and approves a beautiful story and output of someone which is achieved ‘despite’ his or her disadvantage, or pitiful and helpless condition. I didn’t blame her or other delegates personally, and fortunately she, Josie understood what I meant and of course she had realized that is happens (such experience may not be the first time for her).

As our daily behavior, we humans divide persons into a category or group based on shared characteristics such as health condition, race, ethnicity, language, gender, socio-economic status, education level, homeland, nationality etc. It is effective to strengthen relationships of persons within the same group, and it can be important if persons who share a particular characteristic are placed worse off or disadvantaged because of the characteristic. Making a group of disadvantaged people and advocating for changing social policy in order to improve their situation, however, though it is crucial for the group, has a hazard of excluding others who are not qualified as the member, and of ironically reproducing and internalizing discrimination. This is a difficult dilemma which every social action based on any category faces. As she said and I agree, even within those who have disabilities, it is difficult to make inclusive and comprehensive network (for example, those with physical disabilities and those with mental disabilities tend to make different clusters) Nowadays, more and more people have more and more various disabilities. In America it is estimated that there are 54 million individuals with disabilities, additionally, the World Health Organization suggests that at least 15% of the world’s population has a disability. Furthermore, as disabilities are defined by us humans there may be more people who are not diagnosed or categorized as disabled but do have some difficulties and sufferings to live. Thus I support and respect her action as a leader of a disability community in Pittsburgh, and also my study in public health at graduate school and my post-graduation job will be related to disability issues. However, my ultimate interest is not just a disability issue, but rather more fundamental and philosophical question for all human beings, that is how we can flee from an endless process of categorizing and make compassion and connection beyond the difference of characteristics with others as large and wide as possible in society. Though there is not a single easy solution, but I have to keep on challenging in every interaction with others at every daily situation.

Finally, I asked her what motivates her towards her actions. Not every person take leadership like her even though he or she have disabilities and experience some hardships and discriminations. Furthermore, as I mentioned above and she agreed, going front and making a speech as a representative of disability community, she may face prejudice (both in positive and negative form) and be seen by a category of ‘disabled person’ not as an individual Josie Budger. So I wanted to know what drives her to keep playing such a social role beyond her personal feeling and private life. She said, it is not only her life. Though she may face some discrimination, at the same time there is a chance to connect with others, including me, and encourage those who suffer with disabilities. She’s not alone, she said. Yes, that’s true, and it was enough for me to hear that words and to know her courage.

Though I felt a little nervous at the first meeting at the summit (there were too many people and too much positive and innocent), I do not regret throwing the question there, because thanks to that we could meet again and connected more strongly than ever. I do not share her physical disabilities and I have never experienced her life. I stand on my position and I live my own unique life never experienced by her too. But I believe, we are good friends.

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