Students learned about practicing inclusion from two guest speakers as part of the ABILITY series on April 8 in the Lowrimore Auditorium in the Cauthen Educational Media Center.
Marty McKenzie, a visually impaired man and principal at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind, shared his story first. Doctors first diagnosed him with macular degeneration when he was 9 months old, and his vision has worsened since then. McKenzie said he can’t see anything now, but sometimes he is able to detect light.
McKenzie said a major reason why he was able to adjust to a society that is different than him was because he was treated normally growing up. Doctors told his parents that it was important for him to grow up riding bikes and playing roughly with other children.
He explained that the first time he remembers being treated significantly differently was in fifth grade, when his teacher refused to have him in the classroom because she did not want a blind student. Normally, students at his school would rotate between teachers, but he was the only student to stay in one classroom throughout the day.
According to McKenzie, a big factor in being accepted was the community service he did with his church.
“Because of my role, the community viewed me as someone who could, not someone who couldn’t,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie expressed pride in how he was able to build up a long list of accomplishments.
“When I hear my bio read, I think ‘Is that me?’ because it seems impossible that it could be,” McKenzie said.
After McKenzie spoke, Executive Director of ABLE SC Kimberly Tissot explained that others’ perceptions are the biggest obstacles that disabled people face. ABLE SC is an organization that aims to empower those with disabilities.
Tissot had her leg amputated when she was 2 years old because it was cancerous. Like McKenzie, she said it is crucial for everyone to treat people with disabilities as normal, rather than pity them or treat them as if they always need assistance.
“People always assume I have trouble, but this is all I’ve known,” Tissot said. “If I had two legs, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
She also said she hates the disabled being treated as inspirational simply for existing, since it comes off as patronizing and implies that a disabled person is not as capable as an able-bodied person. Tissot also explained language can shape the way that society views disabled people. She said she cringes when she hears words like “special needs” or “differently abled,” when she would rather people simply say “disabled.”
“If we shy away from this word, people are going to be afraid to identify with it,” Tissot said.
Tissot said that while disabled rights have come a long way, there is still a lot of work to be done. She cited a portion of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows employers to pay less than minimum wage to people who produce less because of an impairment.
Tissot shared her belief that people shouldn’t just talk about including disabled people, but that they should make an effort to do it.
“Inclusion is a word that’s thrown out a lot, but people don’t really know what it means, because we’re not practicing it,” Tissot said. “We all need to do better about that.”