America is a consumer society. We work so that we can buy the things we need and want. We measure success by the number of dollars we earn. As consumers, we are bombarded by companies that want to sell us their latest and greatest gadgets. We pay attention to what our friends buy, and when we see a gadget that we like, we shop around and buy it at the lowest price. Finally, we teach others our tricks for using technology effectively, or ask friends for support when we need help. Volume and competition are key. It is the way America works. But does it work for people with disabilities?
I don’t think people with severe disabilities are consumers. They typically don’t have the resources to buy their own assistive technology. While work is desirable, every day is an adventure when you are medically fragile and tomorrow is unpredictable. On top of that, the people with disabilities that I know need an aide – someone to help with daily needs – and who will pay for that at work?
The people with disabilities that I know have few choices on where to buy the technology that they need to be independent. It isn’t easy to compare technologies given the uniqueness of their abilities and only rarely does someone around them know how to use the technology that they require. They can’t compensate when things don’t work well for them. In short, they don’t fit. They just don’t match the underlying assumptions of nearly all the systems operating in America – that we are consumers.
So how do people who aren’t consumers participate in a consumer society? What role do people with disabilities play in a society that focuses on efficiency and volume? Where is the “bang for the buck?”
I think the bang for the buck comes from the fact that none of us want to be viewed primarily as a “consuming unit”. We are human beings. And I think this is what people with severe disabilities contribute to our society. When we consumers sacrifice for someone else, when we help someone, we practice being human. And we need this to counterbalance the efficiency machine of a consumer society, or we lose track of why we matter.
Last week, Wes, one of Be Extraordinary’s (Be-X) clients, landed his first paying client. Wes’ Be-X goal three years ago was to work and help support his family. For three years, as needed, we have worked with Wes to figure out how someone with quadriplegia can work in an efficiency obsessed society. The research data shows that people injured before their first work experience rarely get a job – ever! The research data also shows that someone with Wes’ physical abilities rarely gets a job. But Wes is starting his own business so that he can work. And when I found out last week that he has his first client, I felt a deep sense of how important it is to contribute to society. And when Wes’ mom thanked me for helping her son achieve his goal, I recognized just how much Wes and his mom have helped me. I’m not sure how you or I can learn to be fully human except by helping someone. One thing for sure, I have always found it to be a great deal for the price paid.