In her new book, The Disability Experience: Working Toward Belonging, Hannalora Leavitt works to demystify disability and dismantle the “otherness” often experienced with it.
She wants to change the way people view disability.
“I want people to look at it as a barrier, but not a brick wall,” she said.
Yes, Leavitt explained, people with disabilities (PWDs) will face challenges able-bodied people don’t because society is often not structured to meet their different needs. But, their disabilities do not define them and should not prevent them from fulfilling their aspirations.
“It’s about looking at the person first and understanding that’s the first thing you should be seeing about them,” she said.
The book is both a “disability primer” for able-bodied people, explaining the different types and history of disabilities, and a source of inspiration for PWDs, featuring many, many examples of people like them succeeding as athletes, musicians, actors, entrepreneurs and activists.
Robin Williams had ADHD, Tom Cruise has severe dyslexia, Stephen Hawking had ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), Leavitt points out in her book.
Leavitt hopes the book provides a sense of inspiration and direction to PWDs that she never had growing up. Between ages six and 10, an undiagnosed cancerous brain tumour left Leavitt completely blind in her right eye and legally blind in her left.
“That diagnosis set me on a whole other path – a different and a difficult one,” she said.
Attending school through the ‘70s, first at a residential school for the blind then integrated into public school, Leavitt said very few supports were provided. No one suggested she could have aspirations beyond living with a family member or caretaker for the rest of her life. Later, Leavitt attained a bachelor of arts and masters in writing from the University of Victoria, but still she faces ignorance and challenges.
Leavitt said she has been kicked out of stores, clinics and restaurants innumerable times for having a guide dog. Most recently, she said she was turned down for a government job because someone in the office said they were uncomfortable with having a dog in there.
“It reinforces that feeling of otherness and that you don’t belong in that same equal way,” Leavitt said.
What’s needed is more awareness and a greater willingness from able-bodied people to learn. By the end of her book, Leavitt promises. “You’ll be able to distinguish individual types of disabilities rather than lumping them together. You’ll understand that our independence may look different than yours and that our presence and inclusion are here to stay.”
The Disability Experience can be found at orcabook.com.
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