Understanding Disabilities and Stereotypes

Stereotypes are everywhere, including in the disability world. When people see someone who is in a wheelchair, often they assume the person is completely paralyzed and unable to walk. For me and many others, however, that’s not true. It’s just a stereotype. The reality is that wheelchairs also benefit people like me who can walk short distances, but due to muscle weakness, become too fatigued to walk longer distances.

Communicating Through ASL

Another disability-related misconception I’ve noticed is people believe that American Sign Language, or ASL, is only for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. I do not have any challenges with my hearing but I learned recently there are so many other great reasons to learn to sign.

The obvious reason is that it would make it so much easier to communicate with those who use ASL because they are deaf or hard of hearing, even if you’re not. But there is more than that. Research has shown, for example, that if you teach sign language to babies, they can communicate sooner and more accurately than if you wait until they can talk. There are also studies that show that learning ASL helps children learn to read sooner, and at least for native sign language users, it improves spatial reasoning and has other cognitive benefits.

 Until this school year though, I never realized how much I personally could benefit if more people knew ASL. I have a language-based learning disability, which means that although my hearing is fine, I often struggle with listening and speaking tasks. Reading and writing can be challenging too because those are just the academic forms of language.

Having a language-based learning disability has nothing to do with intelligence. Even people who are gifted can have issues with language. You just need to be aware of it so you can find work arounds and accommodations. Thankfully, I have developed some amazing compensatory strategies over the years, like becoming hyper-aware of visual information in my environment and tuning in to body language and facial expressions to draw meaning and understanding.

Learning ASL

Like many high school students, I am required to take a foreign language class for at least two consecutive years. With my language issues, grammar is hard enough for me to master in English. In a completely different language, I feared it would be the end of me. I dreaded memorization, fluency practice and worst of all, feeling humiliated when trying to repeat after the teacher.

As a sophomore, I could have postponed learning a new language for one more year and still met the two-year requirement. Someone suggested I try out ASL and I was intrigued. Maybe a purely visual language would be easier for me? Although it’s not a foreign language exactly, it is the sixth most commonly used language in the United States. Many colleges have agreed to accept it in satisfaction of their foreign language requirement for both admission and graduation. I decided to give it a shot.

In my ASL class, we learn a new topic each week. For example, one week the class collectively learned about how to sign standard colors. Sometimes for practice, we get to play guessing games or bingo using new signs we’ve learned. I couldn’t believe how easily I have been able to pick this up. I am sure it’s because I can use my highly developed visual skills. The games are so much fun. I swear it isn’t just because winners get candy! For the first time in my life, I can learn a language and communicate in it just as easily as everyone around me! I have learned that ASL is a powerful language and communication tool that can be used to build connections between all ages and abilities.

Recently, flying home after a short trip over fall break, I went to the gate agent to tag my power wheelchair.  As he filled out the tag, he asked, “Will you need assistance getting to your seat?” I replied, “No, that’s alright. I can walk.” He turned, looked at me, and exclaimed, “Oh! I’m so impressed. You can walk! That’s really wonderful.” I felt awkward and uncomfortable but I’m hoping he learned something from me, just as I am learning about other disabilities. The lesson is this: if something helps a person with a particular type of disability, whether it’s a power wheelchair or an alternative form of communication, chances are good that it helps people with other disabilities, or even someone who doesn’t have a disability. Correcting unfair stereotypes truly helps us all!

About Maddie Kasten: Maddie is a Q Roll Model for Quantum Rehab. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and enjoys participating in adaptive sports, playing video games and watching anime. Click here to learn more about Maddie.