Why Does Disability Surprise Us?

In 32 years of living with a visible disability, I’ve learned that my condition brings up many different emotions in people: fear, pity, and awe, to name a few. But there’s another common emotional reaction to disability that, I think, supports all the others: the reaction of surprise.

Sometimes people seem surprised to find us out on the streets. They’re shocked when we disclose our disability in the course of applying for a job, for school admission, or on an online dating site. We are sometimes socialized to pre-warn such people of our disability status before meeting them face-to-face, so we don’t just “surprise them” with the news. When I talk to parents whose infants are newly diagnosed with a disability, one of the most common things they say is “This wasn’t what we expected” or “we needed to change our expectations.”

But, why is this? When statistics show that 15-20% of human beings have a disability, why is encountering someone with a disability, either a stranger or a new addition to your family, so unexpected and surprising?

I don’t know the answer to this. I suspect that, at least in part, our surprise is a consequence of our denial. In some ways, we may be either hard-wired or taught to fear becoming disabled in much the same way we fear our own death. And, if we are motivated to deny the possibility that we might become disabled someday, we may also extend that thinking to the belief that disability in others isn’t all that common. When we encounter a person with a disability, we may be motivated to see that person as an unusual oddity rather than an ordinary human being. This way of thinking makes it more difficult for us to acknowledge the fact that or our own children, employees, friends or romantic partners could be disabled.

As a consequence of this collective surprise, when a disabled person does arrive on the scene, we may end up scrambling and fumbling to accommodate that person. Whereas, if we expected disability from the outset, we could build our systems from the ground up so that they are fully accessible to people of all abilities. For example, all too often employers find themselves having to figure out how to make their company’s computer hardware and software accessible when a blind person is hired, rather than simply buying accessible software ahead of time in the event that a blind employee (or, really, anyone who might not work well with graphics-based technology) is hired in the future.

So, I challenge you not to be surprised by disability. Instead, expect it. Expect that 15-20% of the people you will meet will have some physical or mental difference that affects their ability to access one or more environments. Expect that the people with whom you interact may have differing needs or strengths. Don’t be surprised if someone in your workplace, school, family, social circle, or anywhere else has a disability, perhaps one you didn’t notice at first. Their revelation doesn’t affect their belonging in that social space. It doesn’t mean that their successes are somehow inspiring or unusual. It just means that they may do some things in a different way. Perhaps once we start to think of disability as regular and mundane, we may find it easier to accept those who have disabilities as ordinary people.

One thought on “Why Does Disability Surprise Us?

  1. It seems possible that it is still surprising because for most of human history, our species didn’t have the same resources available that we do today to help many people with disabilities stay alive, healthy, and active in society. Modern medicine and technology have made it possible for so many people of different abilities to thrive where for centuries they might have instead been homebound, institutionalized, or even deceased. So, I think it does still come as something of a pleasant surprise to humanity as a whole that we actually are where we are. I know it can seem hurtful or derogatory for many people to still be surprised that a disabled person can live a full and productive life, but I think it is more of a comment on our natural human tendency to be socially informed by the past than an accurate assessment of people’s individual beliefs about the potential of people with disabilities. Seventy-five years ago, it was widely accepted that women’s biological “limitations” meant we were unfit for the workforce and would be happiest and safest staying at home. Enter birth control and the technologies that make differences in physical strength largely irrelevant in work today, and suddenly we have choices we didn’t. But the business world is still trying to figure out how to restructure itself to accommodate a workforce that, after thousands of years of functioning a certain way, no longer has wives at home taking care of the daily needs of life. I think it does take some time for social expectations to catch up to reality. You said it best in your closing sentence: “Perhaps once we start to think of disability as regular and mundane, we may find it easier to accept those who have disabilities as ordinary people.”

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