Focus on Ability, Not Disabilty
Every year in October the country observes National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Each year NDEAM establishes a theme and this year that is “inclusion works.” The notion that inclusion does work speaks directly to what we do at the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF). Twenty of our grant recipient partners are programs that support various aspects of inclusion for people with disabilities along the entire age spectrum. We know from working with these programs that inclusion works.
Unfortunately, too many people do not yet realize or acknowledge this fact. Too many people have preconceived notions of the limitations that disability presents and not enough awareness of the abilities of those of us who have disabilities.
For me, National Disability Employment Awareness Month is very personal. As a deaf man and as the former president of Gallaudet University, I have been very close to issues related to disability for more than 50 years. About 10 years ago I was invited to join the Board of Directors of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and my work with disability issues immediately grew by leaps and bounds.
At the Foundation we think of ourselves as investors. In the area of disability, we invest in programs that work directly with individuals to help them transition from one level of education to the next and finally to the world of work. We have learned two very significant things doing this.
First, and this is where disability is highly personal to me, we have learned that the most difficult barrier people with disabilities face is not a physical one, but is the barrier of
negative attitudes. Ignorance is a frequently misused or overused word, but related to disability, it is true that by and large most people are ignorant. Most people, when they think about individuals with disabilities, think first about what those people cannot do. By doing this, they actually create a barrier which makes it more difficult for people with disabilities to achieve. When we can focus instead on what people with disabilities can do instead of what they cannot do, it becomes much easier for them to achieve.
The second thing we have learned relates directly to the first. Over time and after significant investment in scholarships for people with disabilities we now know that while those scholarships are very important in helping people with disabilities access higher education, as important or maybe even more important is what we have called elsewhere a “secret sauce.” Let me describe briefly one of the Foundation’s core programs and the importance of secret sauce.
Since the Foundation began, we have provided over 4,250 scholarships to nearly 2,500 students with disabilities at all 12 of the universities in the State University System of Florida. This totals to more than $9 million of JSF funds granted to these students over the past 25 years. Many of the students who receive scholarship support say that without it they would not have been able to attend university. Along with the scholarship dollars that they receive, however, is a different and maybe more important support. They receive the personal support and attention of the staff people who work in the offices of disability support services. This support is what we have called the secret sauce, but it’s a very simple concept.
The staff people who work in the disability services offices “get it.” When they see a student who has a disability they focus immediately on what that student can do. Instead of presenting an attitudinal barrier, their positive attitudes help students succeed. They help them succeed in class and in life. They help them persist in their education from year to year and they help them transition to the world of work.
This is why this is so personal to me. For most of my life I have had to deal with negative attitudes related to my deafness. Since joining JSF, I’ve been privileged to help address and change those attitudes for many hundreds of young people. We at the Foundation have seen so many successful transitions to work, but what has given me most personal satisfaction has been the overall growth in the recognition of the abilities of people with disabilities.
I encourage you to take the time during this month to reflect on your own personal perception of disability. Last week’s blog focused on the fact that we have a long way to go. We definitely do. And change can start with you.
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