Monday, June 4, 2012

Navigation and Disabled Interdependence

For those readers who are mathematically inclined, a word problem:

Two people with disabilities, one dyslexic and one autistic, walk out of housing check-in for the 2012 AAPD Summer internship. To reach their dormitory, they must correctly choose whether to go right, left, forward, or back, at every intersection along their five-block route. It is dark, it is raining, and they are in an unfamiliar city. They are equipped with a map which one of them cannot read and the other one cannot understand. Given these facts, how long will it take this hapless duo to reach their lodgings? Will they, in fact, ever arrive?

I am the autistic person in this scenario. The dyslexic person is Phred, my fellow intern and, because the situation I described proved to be a bonding experience, my new friend. Phred found the map’s small print, and to a lesser degree the street signs, challenging to read. She generally prefers such things in an audible format. For my part, my spatial reasoning is such that I could not successfully extract myself from a paper bag in 4 out of 5 trials. (I realize that this statement will alarm anyone who believes that all autistics are cloned from Temple Grandin; for this, I apologize.)

If you emphasize the aspects of our disabilities which cause us the greatest difficulty in our daily lives, you might guess that Phred and I spent that night huddled on the sidewalk, awaiting rescue. If you consider our strengths, however, you might arrive at a different conclusion. As it happens, I am very much at ease with reading words. And Phred, like many dyslexic folks, has a very strong sense of spatial awareness. We quickly found that we could each function as one half of a GPS, and in combination we can be an unstoppable route-finding force. With me reading the street signs, and Phred giving directions, we proceeded like this:

“We have arrived at the intersection of 22nd and H Streets.”
“Go that way!”

When talking about people like Phred and me, “experts” often present dire scenarios in order to prove that we are incapable of living independently. Phred’s and my adventure with the map might even qualify. Some people would say that since we each required some assistance in this scenario, we could not be considered “independent.” However, one thing that we learned during our orientation is that the definition of independence needs to be broadened when discussing the lives of people with disabilities. Instead of asking, “can this person do any and all tasks without help?” we should ask, “does this person have the help that they need to live the kind of life they want to live?”

Another fact that is often overlooked is that disabled people can turn to each other for help. In my first week at AAPD, I’ve seen disabled people helping each other in all kinds of ways – reading aloud, taking notes, interpreting, lifting and carrying. I find it difficult to articulate exactly what this means to me, so let me just say for now that I have very strong feelings about the disability community, about the help that we need, and about the interdependent kind of independence that we can build together.

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