Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Which Box?

We humans like to label, to stereotype, to box-in others to simplify our own lives, allowing us to avoid dealing with the complexity of each person. We delude ourselves into thinking that we know another person, when all we really know is the box that we created. Those of us with disabilities are boxed all the time - with labels such as “inspirational”, “tragic”, “brave”, “retard”, “cripple”, or "special". The labels, even the seemingly kind ones, serve to diminish who we are, limit our potential and our contributions, and take away our humanity.

Here’s a story of how someone put me in one box, then another box, and finally got rid of his box perspective.

Several years ago, we got a new choir director at my church. Tony was about the age that I am now, finishing up a bachelor’s degree in choral music at a nearby university. I had been singing in choirs at my church for about 8 years with the previous choir director. When Tony first came, he was overwhelmed by the enormity of the job. He had his hands full juggling his college demands and the full-time job of music director at a church where music plays a central role in liturgy. I imagine it was not easy seeing my wheelchair and cerebral palsy among the musicians. At first, Tony appeared very cold and distant to me, and I really didn’t feel like a part of the group any more. I didn’t feel wanted or respected. I knew Tony did not see me as a choir member, but instead saw me as a person who was in the way, a burden to the demands of his job.

I continued to sing, moving from the teen choir to the adult choir. Tony gradually became more comfortable with his role as music director and also with my place in the choir. We had many enjoyable conversations, and he got to know me as a person. He valued my contributions as a tenor in the choir, and little by little dismantled the box that he had put me in.

One Easter Sunday, it became apparent that Tony now had me in a new box. In the middle of mass, he spontaneously decided that the choir would sing in a different part of the church, a part that was not easily accessible to my wheelchair. Tony quickly directed the choir to follow him, and everyone but me, did. I stayed put, as I could see that the new location couldn't work for me. Tony started to conduct the choir for the song and saw that I was not there. His face registered “uh-oh!,” shock, and embarrassment. The choir sang the song, and everyone returned to their places.

Tony was intensely, humbly apologetic. He had forgotten that I use a wheelchair; he had seen me only as a singer. I had gone from one box to another box. I had gone from "disability" to "no disability", from "cerebral palsy" to "tenor". Different boxes, yes, but still boxes; boxes that simplified me as being only one thing and did a disservice to me.

A few years have passed since that Easter Sunday, and Tony and I have a great working relationship and friendship. He now seeks to understand all of me, asking me questions and getting to know me. Recently, he heard a guest speaker at our church naively stereotype people who use wheelchairs. He graciously offered to drive her back to the airport, with a mission to catch her ear on the subject of stereotyping people with disabilities. When he told me that story, I couldn’t help but smile. I have a lot of respect for Tony; it is not easy to stop putting people in boxes. I hope I can follow his example and unabashedly drop the boxes that I have that so limit the people I stereotype.

Description of picture: boxes stacked upon each other

1 comment:

Elizabeth McClung said...

Thanks for this post, it encapsulates a lot of the "boxes" which appear, particularly around churches (It drove me nuts that after finally getting my Doctorate, my name would spontanously appear on "coffee serving" because I was a female - there were no men whose names appeared on the list). As for your boxes experience, I am still in the "Oh darn, she's here" wheelchair-pain in the butt person - maybe time will transform me. Is there some way to speed the process along?

Thanks again for the post - really enjoyed it.