Monday, August 21, 2006

Another excellent reason to stop reading this blog.

Now and then I'll hear from readers--or more precisely, ex-readers--who take me to task for puncturing the feel-good myths that sustain them. They'll accuse me of being a wet blanket and an irredeemable downer. ("You're obsessed with finding the dark cloud in every silver lining" is how one woman put it.) At the risk of increasing the size of that contingent, I come to you with today's post, which concerns a segment I saw on the news this weekend. I didn't get the whole story, but it involves a self-help group consisting of people united by their various disabilities, who are individually determined to realize their dreams nonetheless.

Their spokesperson was a woman with muscular dystrophy who boldly declared into the camera, "I'm not going to let my MD hold me back! From anything." I italicize the word because it reflects how she said it--with bellicose, in-your-face panache. The half-dozen group members in the background, all visibly afflicted with serious maladies (including at least one young man with Down syndrome), cheered and applauded.

I'm sorry; I don't mean to be insensitive. If you knew me better, you'd know that I'm not a judgmental person or an elitist. And I happen to like an inspirational, against-all-odds story as much as the next gal. I'm particularly fond of movies that start off badly, then resolve to a nice, happy ending (which is one reason I've almost always got Lifetime Movie Network on in the background while I work, as an engaging form of white noise. I kid you not). But a person who bellows at me--from a wheelchair, no less--that she's not going to let her incurable illness hold her back "from anything" is not someone whom I find inspiring. Rather, I find that person delusional. And also, frankly, somewhat annoying.

Yes, I "know what she means." It's her way of saying that "just because I'm in a chair doesn't mean I'm curling up into a ball and dying. I intend to make the best of this. So watch out world, here I come!" Well then say that. Why do we feel compelled, in this society, to talk in overblown superlatives that are so manifestly out of whack with observable reality? Whom does that really help, in a practical sense?

What's more, this kind of thinking is not harmless. It promotes a sense of entitlement among people who--like it or not--do not enjoy the rights and/or privileges they've been conditioned to expect.* Consider, for one, Mario Cella, who last year extracted a $45,000 settlement from Pennsylvania's East Stroudsburg University. You can read the story for yourself, but in a nutshell, East Stroudsburg's great crime was its adherence to academic standards that Cella could not meet, due to his diagnosed learning disabilities. So, because he couldn't graduate, the college had to pay. Cella's case is not an isolated one. I give you, also, "J.P.," as he is identified in his successful action, for unspecified damages, against Pennsylvania's Southern York County School District (still under appeal). A special-education student, J.P. was angry at his high school because its special-ed programs did not enable him to perform well on standardized tests and thus "failed to prepare him to enter college and/or the workforce." Am I wrong to ask whether a special-ed student belongs in college? Are we all entitled to college (and then to sue for damages if we don't excel)?

That can't be what we really mean when we talk about self-esteem. It can't possibly be...

* amid today's don't-you-dare-offend-anybody mood of political correctness.

9 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

I do believe that anybody has the right to aspire to whatever they want, but nobody has the inherent right to succeed. Consequently, it is ludicrous for someone to blame another person (or institution) for their failure, unless that person actively worked to cause that failure, or the institution failed to provide what could be reasonably expected of it in the way of training.

I've spoken with trainers at a Motorcycle Safety Foundation who - quite regrettably - failed some students, thus impeding their ability to get their licenses. Their attitude was that some people simply lack the mental or physical capability of safely operating a motorcycle. After observing one such individual in the class, I was relieved to learn that I wouldn't be sharing the road with him. For him to somehow transfer responsibility for his lack of abilities would have been stupid, but some have tried doing just that.

Individuals who insist upon performing a task for which they lack the required aptitude and/or ability can blame others all they want, but the responsibility for their failure is ultimately their own. I'm certain there are attorneys who would disagree.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... looks like your headline worked. Where is everybody?!

Steve Salerno said...

Good point. Well, I've got something a bit more "uplifting" to go up next. Maybe that'll lure some folks back.

Rodger Johnson said...

Your post illustrates a classic cultural phenomenon that may be linked to the self-help, victimization attitude of some people.

And, it is important for institutions, society in general, to impose standards, expectations and norms of acceptable behavior. These, in fact, are some keys to motivation.

For a student -- learning disabled or not -- to blame a college for his failure is both the college administration's and student's fault.

It's the fault of the administration because they caved to pressure. Whether that pressure is from a court order of public descent -- in either case -- an act of civil disobedience may have been all that's needed to tip the scale to a more rational, fair way of doing business.

If there's one thing I've learned from studying how relationships are built, it's that standards must be set, and expectations must be exceeded on both sides of the fence.

For the handicapped girl in your post, it's common for handicapped people to -- in public -- express an over zealous attitude toward accomplishments, past, present and future. They do this because deep down in their hearts they know that just the basic tasks of living life are difficult.

Let me give you an example.

When I was born, doctors told my mother that I would never walk, and, worse case scenario, that I’d probably live a life in a wheelchair, never finish high school, never get married, never live a “normal” life and probably die before I was 30 years old. In the 70s, that’s the limited understanding doctors had of cerebral palsy – a condition which affects the right side of my body. One doctor had a different opinion.

At Riley Children’s Hospital, a doctor told my mother that with intense physical therapy, above normal nutrition and a relentless regiment of exercise beyond PT, I had the possibility of a “normal” life. That’s what happened. For the first 10 years of my life, I attended PT many times a month. My mother pumped me with so many vitamins and minerals that I could have been the poster-boy for Shaklee. And then there was the relentless exercise.

All told, I’ve faired pretty well. Beat the odds the original doctors forecasted.

Handicapped people must have some hope. They must believe in something, especially when reality’s cards are stacked against them. When they become obnoxious – as the person in your post – it’s more appropriate to privately pity them and then keep your mouth shut. I think it’s inappropriate to use them as a blog post subject.

Although, I will always live with CP, challenging myself to do more – regardless of failure – helps me understand the limits of my handicap. The same holds true for anyone, regardless of their physical or cognitive limitations. For example, having CP affect my right hand has not inhibited me from lifting weights at the gym, of being a cycling enthusiast, of rock climbing and repelling – although that’s a challenge which truly tested my limits.

I agree that over zealous hope and an in-you-face attitude are unbecoming, but this blog post seems to be no better. If you’re intentions are to seek fundamental answers to your basic premise in SHAM, then I think there’s a better way to go about it. Using the disabled as example, I think, will really irritate people – it irritated me.

RevRon's Rants said...

I think the current tendency towward politically correct speech and behavior is really nothing more than an attempt to unofficially legislate deference toward those who suffer from chronically low self-esteem, and to relieve those eternally injured souls from the responsibility of coming to grips with their lives.

We all have sad tales swimming around in our individual psyches, and each of us has emotional buttons that we hope nobody will ever push. Unfortunately, we have caved to the notion that it's easier to force those around us to walk on eggs than to figure out how to unwire our own buttons. And we all deserve the easy way, now don't we?

RevRon's Rants said...

I think the current tendency towward politically correct speech and behavior is really nothing more than an attempt to unofficially legislate deference toward those who suffer from chronically low self-esteem, and to relieve those eternally injured souls from the responsibility of coming to grips with their lives.

We all have sad tales swimming around in our individual psyches, and each of us has emotional buttons that we hope nobody will ever push. Unfortunately, we have caved to the notion that it's easier to force those around us to walk on eggs than to figure out how to unwire our own buttons. And we all deserve the easy way, now don't we?

Rodger Johnson said...

Our tendency to be nice to people is an behavior we've forgotten.

There's no need to step on people's feet, RevRon. And there's no need to unwire our emotional buttons. Grounding them is better.

The point of my comment is to point out that being nice and picking your examples and battles wisely is better than using an example that neither has the recourse to defend herself -- ie the main subject of Steve's post --nor really cares to defend herself, I assume -- given the tone Steve captured in the original post.

Those people with a chronic victimization mentality or those that pontificate an overly zealous hope that is obviously absurd given their physical limitation are best left alone.

I think Steve should attempt to find the subject of his post and I think we should all schedule a time to open a chatroom to discuss this further.

RevRon's Rants said...

I disagree with the contention that we've forgotten how to be nice to each other. The problem, as I see it, is that there are some people who strive to grow their feet so large that others can't help stepping on them, and who place their buttons in such a way that they will inevitably get pushed. In my mind, these people share the same mentality as those who intentionally get "injured" in order to file lawsuits. Make somebody - anybody but myself - responsible for my lot in life. In reality, there does not have to be somebody to blame for everything that happens to us, assuming we are willing to accept responsibility for improving ourselves.

I, for one, don't feel compelled to control what Steve or anyone else puts in their blog. I read and respond to the ones I find engaging, or move on if I find one that doesn't interest me. If one pushes my buttons, I might respond with an alternate viewpoint, or I might poke some light-hearted fun at what I perceive as absurdity. That, however, is the limit of my "responsibility," and is a comfortable boundary for my zone of influence.

Steve Salerno said...

Interesting back-and-forth here. I wish I had more time to engage meaningfully with the substance of what you folks have written here, but alas--and, thankfully, at least in terms of my car payment and the like--I am surreally busy at the moment. Glad to have a good group of regulars to carry the ball so effortlessly.