Recently, we marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and it feels right to tackle a sensitive topic: the questions we’re often too nervous to ask those living with disabilities.
Today, we’re busting those barriers with help from Antwaun Rolle, who’s living with cerebral palsy. In this revealing interview, Antwaun candidly addresses common misconceptions and answers those awkward questions, all in the spirit of creating a world that’s understanding, accepting, and inclusive for everyone.
How would you like me to refer to your disability?
Don’t make disability a negative word. That’s, at least, for me. You could ask that question, because each person is different. Some people would say, “Hey, don’t call me disabled,” call me something else. So, getting to know that person and asking them what they’re comfortable with and how they identify with their disability is a wonderful step. Ask them a question, ask them how they feel.
Can you tell me more about your disability?
I’m from the Bahamas. I was a premature baby at 29 weeks and I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Simply put, CP is a damage to the brain that can affect motor function. Some people have mild cases, and sometimes it is severe.
What is the biggest misconception people have about your disability?
One misconception people have about my disability is that I’m frail. People go, “Oh, I don’t want to hurt you.” And that’s fine. If you’re hurting me, I’ll let you know. But I’m not as brittle as people think. I am not made of glass.
What can I do to make our interaction more comfortable for you?
Just treat me like a human being. Don’t make it that big thing, more than it has to be. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Is there anything you wish more people understood about living with a disability?
Some people tend to think that our lives are kind of depressing. But we live happy, fulfilling lives, you know? We’re not all depressed, We’re pretty happy. Now, do we have our struggles? Yes, sure. But everyone does, right? Tell me what human being, able bodied or not, doesn’t have struggles and ups and downs. I feel that’s what people don’t understand.
There’s a common stereotype that disabled people are mostly friends with other disabled people. Is there truth to that?
That’s just situational. I only know a few disabled people and growing up I barely knew anyone. So, I wouldn’t say no. I would just say, we’re not only friends with disabled individuals. Some people know more disabled people. And in my case, I didn’t know many.
Do you think other disabled people have better understandings of the struggles you’re going through, a better level of awareness?
One time I fell down and my friend with CP just went, “You okay?” There wasn’t any panic in his voice. He did understand exactly what just happened because of our shared experience. If someone is blind, and I have CP, I don’t know what it is to be blind. But there are some commonalities that we, disabled people, might all face, so we do understand each other in that way. However, all of our experiences are different. To say that our struggle is all the same is very dangerous, and you’re putting us in a box.
How does your disability affect your daily life?
I would say, it’s exhausting. It takes me longer to get places. I’m wasting a lot of time and I can’t be as time efficient as someone else, especially if the place isn’t accessible.
It also affects me socially. Some people are so afraid to ask me questions. They feel so awkward around a disabled person, just simply because they’re disabled, that it makes it hard to form relationships. People sometimes have a habit of telling me “Yeah…” because they don’t want to hurt my feelings. I would say it affects me socially as in, do I know if this person is being honest with me?
What adaptations or accommodations are helpful for you?
Elevators that are big enough to fit a wheelchair, as sometimes, that isn’t the case. Having disabled buttons on the doors in the bathrooms. Here, at the university, we don’t have those everywhere. And, just making sure that every building is accessible, and not just assuming that it is, you know?
Making sure that the sidewalks are paved properly, as an unpaved chipped sidewalk can create a lot of problems to a wheelchair user. Building a culture of a disabilities aware society, so people understand that these are not just someone’s struggle. It’s everyone’s struggle. Anyone can end up in a wheelchair one day. It’s important to create a culture that realizes this isn’t a problem that just affects a few disabled family members. This affects us all.
How do you feel about the representation of people with disabilities in media and education?
I kind of wish they could actually get a disabled guy to play a disabled character. That’d be nice to see. You also see a lot, especially in older movies, they’d be bullying the disabled kid. Why do they always make us look so weak?
Media and entertainment also could have more diversity when it comes to disabilities, not just the guy in the wheelchair and the blind guy, because that’s all I see in movies, Although it’s slowly changing.
When it comes to education, I wish we could learn about disabilities in school. Start from kindergarten and work your way up to high school. So, when kids finally do meet a disabled person on the street or in the workplace, it’s not as awkward. Because they’ve been exposed to this through teaching and it’s not as taboo.
What are some challenges you face that others might not realize?
One thing people don’t realize is that we can feel quite isolated from a lot of social activities. We have to make sure that an activity or event is accessible for us. When there’s a concert, or snow sledding or any other event, it’s really important to make sure the event is accessible to different kinds of people. That they don’t feel isolated. Sometimes, this can be a struggle to admit that, yeah, this is what we deal with, and it’s isolation. We just want to belong.
How can I be an ally to people with disabilities?
You can be an ally in different ways. You can be an ally by saying, “You’re not alone in this. As an able bodied person, I might not know what you go through on a daily basis, but I’m going to try my best to help you and help you raise your voice.” And, of course, educating oneself and becoming more disabled-aware. For example, knowing how to use a wheelchair. There are many times I will go to people and they’d say, “I don’t know how to push a wheelchair”. Well, you’re already halfway there. You said the first word.
Also, you can learn sign language. We teach people in certain industries how to do the Heimlich maneuver. We can do the same with sign language, so a deaf person always has means of communicating in social settings. You can also be an ally by making sure that your house, your business, your university is accessible. Instead of being told by a disabled person something isn’t accessible, think to yourself, why isn’t a disabled button there? Stuff like that.
How do you handle situations when people are insensitive or ignorant about your disability?
I make a joke about it. I also try to educate them by saying, “Well, no, that’s not the case,” as some of them really don’t know. But, sometimes, people just want to be d*cks. That’s why I use humour.
One comment that can be a little bit insensitive if not executed properly, is when people go, “You know, you’re my inspiration. You are a hero.” For what, going to the grocery store? People don’t want to be called heroes for doing mundane things. Or when you see posters that say, “If he can do it, so can you.” Like, what does that mean?
What are some achievements or abilities you’re proud of that people often overlook because of your disability?
I’m proud of my endurance. A lot of people didn’t expect a lot of me back home. I’m really proud that I was able to move to a different country on my own, despite my disability, you could say.
Starting this disabled day at UPEI, starting a club, raising awareness and raising a flag at the legislature, get a degree.. That’s something I’m very proud of that some people might not care too much about.
Something you want to add?
Don’t be afraid to ask disabled people questions. Disability isn’t a negative word. It’s pretty standard. Some people might not like that word, so use whatever they’re comfortable with. I’m fine with a disability. Being not able bodied isn’t always negative. I’m not your inspiration. I do think that there’s a lot of work to be done. Although December 3 is an International Day of Persons with Disabilities, don’t box disability on this day only. Don’t think that disability can’t happen to you. Because it can, and if it does, it doesn’t make you less.
By Grace Biswas