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Joy and living with a disability are two terms often not associated together or as to coexist. Instead, some people without a disability (AKA: outsiders) and society, as a whole, view people with disabilities negatively and as second-class citizens. Too many times, negative descriptors such as abnormal, handicapped, diseased, disordered, and asexual (i.e., not an acceptable relationship partner) are used, rather than neutral or positive ones. In such instances, people may focus solely on the disability or difference they see and make inaccurate assumptions about peoples’ abilities, intellect, worth, happiness (i.e., joy, contentment), as well as supposed beliefs and feelings about living with a disability rather than viewing the person as a person with many valued attributes and characteristics.
Negative views and assumptions held by outsiders (i.e., people not living with a disability) have been an entrenched component of societal attitudes for thousands of years. Examples of poor treatment of persons with disabilities date back to early Greek and Roman civilizations (4th Century B.C.; Preen, 1976), across cultures, and throughout time. More specifically, people with disabilities have typically been abandoned and left to die, viewed as being demonically possessed, ostracized, in need of religious intervention and help, institutionalized, subjected to torturous treatments (i.e., electric shock), and the object of societal welfare, charity, and telethons (i.e., 1970’s telethons, posters of children or people to be admired; Rubin & Roessler, 2008). Throughout, people without disabilities behaved in ways that suggest they know what is best for this group of people rather than stepping back and letting people with disabilities speak for their own needs. Intermixed, throughout time, are harmful and silent messages about what it means to be someone with a disability of which joy and living a joyful life would not be among them. Examples of societal messages are overt and covert. More specifically, people sometimes convey messages of blame (i.e., causality), disbelief, shame and discomfort, and sensationalism. Some of these messages include the following (Stuntzner, 2012, p. 64):
Due to historical negative societal beliefs and assumptions, people with disabilities have been misunderstood and mistreated for thousands of years. While I wish I could say that such views and events are “a thing of the past,” they are not. Instead, we are approaching the end of 2019, and people with disabilities continue to be misunderstood, undervalued, underemployed, ignored, told they do not know what they need (both overtly and covertly), discriminated against, and in many instances, they receive inadequate health care or access to resources granted to other groups; the list of injustices go on. There are also positive examples of people who live with a disability and who are trying to make a difference in their life and the lives of others. Similarly, the world is filled with kind, compassionate, accepting, supportive and positive people who do not have a disability but believe in the “work” or “societal fight” to walk alongside people with disabilities and who believe people with disabilities deserve the same rights as everyone else, including the right to live a life full of joy, happiness, and fulfillment.
Living with a disability allows people to live a joyous life and find meaning in their circumstances. While the thought of joy and disability coexisting together may not be a natural assumption, it is possible. New examples of living a joyous and meaningful life are evident, every day, as people come forward, educate others about the ways their life and the lives of others have changed in unforeseen, positive ways.
Recently, I came across an article called “The Joy in Disability.” As I read this piece, I learned of a man named Nick Vujicic. Nick is a happy and joyous man who is married and is a father; he speaks to people all over the world as a part of his ministry. Nick is a person who knows about having to come to terms with his physical abilities and feelings of depression, and the plight of questioning God. Yet, it is because of his lived experiences and his faith that he learned to find love and joy, and he is blessed with a ministry despite being born without any arms or legs (The Joyful Truth, 2014). Nick’s story is compelling and revealing in many ways. He lives with a situation that may be challenging for some of us to accept were it our life. Yet, he has found joy, despite not having any arms and legs, and experiences a full life. Nick’s story is a reminder to us all that it is not what we go through that makes us happy and helps us find peace; instead, it is our attitude and perception of our life and specific circumstances combined with our willingness to embrace our situation to help others.
Another example of finding joy may be found in the numerous stories of people living with cancer and their family members. Similar to the story above, the actual process of dealing with a disability or health condition, in this case – cancer, may not be initially welcomed. But, the experience of battling cancer is often described by those who go through it as a situation that helped them learn and grow in positive ways, reprioritize their values, focus on what is right in life, and make deliberate life changes. Cancer is a condition that may bring families closer together, to God, and one that shifts people’s priorities. People learn that today is all they have and that life is precious. Enjoying life to the fullest is at the forefront of people’s minds as they never know what tomorrow holds. Such an experience may cause people to explore several personal and existential questions, which can be difficult. Yet, when they work through them, some find they have undergone a positive transformation, one that includes purpose, meaning-making, and joy.
Seeing joy in others may be easier than in ourselves.
Going forward, I encourage you to pause, reflect, and take the time to identify joy within yourself and your life. When we take this time, we give ourselves the chance to notice that which makes us happy and gives us pleasure. Often, it is the small things in life or life events close to our heart. It has been an essential part of my life to remember that there are always things to be happy about or enjoy even when life is not going exactly the way I want it to go. Furthermore, I am often reminded that life is filled with opportunities to experience joy and happiness when I take the time to see and remember.
Recently, I had one of the moments; it was when I saw my 12-year-old black lab Madison, swim to her heart’s content, and retrieve scungy seaweed. Swimming these days is not easy for her due to her arthritis, but it is an activity she has always enjoyed. And, on this particular day, she acted in ways as if she remembered just how much she loves swimming and retrieving. She cast away her daily worries and thoroughly enjoyed herself. As I played with her, I paused and reflected on the years we have had together and all of the joy she has brought me. At that moment, I was humbled and reminded, once again, that life is filled with joy and joyous moments when I create the space to notice and experience them. My wish for you is to be able to give yourself that same time and space and to embrace the abundant joy in your life!
Preen, B. (1976). Schooling for the mentally retarded: A historical perspective. New York, NY:
St. Martin’s Press.
Rubin, S. E., & Roessler, R. T. (2008). Foundations of the vocational rehabilitation process (6th Ed.). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
Stuntzner, S. (2012). Living with a disability: Finding peace amidst the storm. Ahmedabad, Gujrat, India. Counseling Association of India.
The Joyful Truth (February 21, 2014). The Joy in Disability. Retrieved on December 11, 2019, from http://thejoyfultruth.com/the-joy-in-disability/
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