Monday, January 30, 2012

The Algebraic Formula for Fear

Our society has within it an engrained perception, reaction, and belief system about individuals with developmental disabilities, myself included, which shows up in subtle ways.  For example, upon starting my position at Wendell Foster’s Campus (WFC), a little voice whispered, “Avoid running into or looking at any of them.”  The source was Fear, taught through a history of generational and ancestral roots seeded in a long history of societal public opinion towards this population.  And I succumbed.

By the end of the second day of training, I realized I was purposefully not making eye contact with any of the Campus residents as they moved through the break area.  Wow, I thought to myself, is that really how I want to show up in this work?  As a human being?  I used fear as an avoidance tactic.

I’ve learned from personal experience that Fear breeds a very active imagination, which is fueled by inaccurate belief systems, lack of information, and learned social and generational attitudes.  In one research study I read, it said, “negative attitudes toward people with disabilities are rooted in lack of knowledge and the perpetuation of erroneous, often negative stereotypes.” In other words, what you believe and don’t know, shapes what you think, say and do!  Our parents, grandparents, peers, in addition to our own personal experiences, mixed with media messaging all influence how we think about and interact with people different from us, in any given situation. I finally understood what “ignorance” really means:  the lack of understanding from an intellectual perspective, which cultivates inaccurate belief systems.  In a nutshell, Lack of Info + Inaccurate Beliefs + Unfamiliarity = Fear Activated.

It had been over two years since I last volunteered with individuals with disabilities.  I questioned my ability to interact with the residents and clients of WFC.  I was uncertain as to what extreme of disabilities I would encounter; additionally, I also felt pressure, admittedly self-imposed, to perform perfectly within those interactions.  Why?  Because those who worked here did it every day; and I feared being judged as inadequate, or chastised if I didn’t handle myself perfectly with the clients.

Because of my fear, I averted my own discomfort by initially avoiding those I encountered in the first two days of work.  I was afraid I couldn’t communicate, or I would say something to offend the residents, or my new employer.  I’d prefer to ignore them rather than perform imperfectly.  Ironic, isn’t it, given these individuals live in less than perfect-functioning bodies?  How incredibly vain and selfish I was being!  My fear and I was robbing myself of opportunities to enjoy some amazing “persons” because my focus was on the “disability.”  The next day, I made sure I looked each person with and without a disability that moved through the break area in the eye, greeting him or her with a resounding “Hi!”

Recognizing that the unfamiliar activates fear helps one move through it.  I gave myself permission to be imperfect, and through conscious effort to engage, I reclaimed my confidence and enjoyed meaningful human connections that brought smiles to my face, warmth and joy to my heart.

Fear keeps us from living and experiencing incredible joy; it also prevents us from significantly making a difference in this world.  We all have potential to make a difference, potential we take for granted.  At Wendell Foster’s Campus, our residents conquer huge hurdles to tap into and activate their potential to make a difference in our community!  And they achieve it, breaking through obstacles and fear, so they may read to elementary school children, participate to ride the Green Belt with a local bicycle club, travel to and from work on GRITS buses, paint artwork, take photos, or connect with the world on Facebook.  The residents at WFC inspire me to practice fearless living.

In the Next Blog Entry:  "I Can Do It" - “Shelly quickly but sweetly chided, “I can do it.”  Her message was loud and clear  . . . . “

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