Defining Disability: New Campaign Aims to Foster Conversation, Understanding

Jamie Spore, Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2016

Jamie Spore, Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2016

How do you define disability?

For Jamie Spore, currently serving as Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2016, being born with spina bifida hasn’t defined her. Unfortunately, perceptions and expectations that others have about her abilities often don’t match the reality of the charming 34-year-old.

“People underestimate me because of the chair,” she said.

Restaurant workers have asked Spore’s dining companions what she would like for dinner, right in front of her. When she graduated from college with high honors, there wasn’t going to be a ramp for her to accept her diploma. At first accepting the disappointment, Spore became more and more frustrated, eventually demanding that her school make an accommodation for her to fully take part in the ceremony.

“I’m wheeling across that stage,” she remembers thinking, and administrators did eventually set up a ramp so she could receive her degree like everyone else.

Spore was a featured guest at a recent picnic celebrating ability, put on by Disability Advocates of Kent County. The picnic celebrated the 26th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as Disability Advocates’ 35th Anniversary. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan was a sponsor of the event.

Dis.is campaign display materials.

Dis.is campaign display materials.

Along with singing, dancing, and snacks, the celebration served as a kickoff for a yearlong awareness campaign called “Dis.is”, which aims to counteract some of the misconceptions that Spore faces on a daily basis, as well as highlight the need for ongoing education regarding accessibility in all forms.

Organizers are hoping to start a community-wide conversation, asking people to “look at ‘disability’ with a fresh perspective, free of the myths and stereotypes that have built up over the centuries with a focus on the person behind the label.”

“This is all about creating community conversations,” said Christine Morse, Community Relations and Education Program Manager for Disability Advocates.

The campaign features an interactive website that invites everyone to define disability and what that word means to them. Morse said videos, social media, and community events will push the campaign and the conversation forward, giving people a chance to explain what life with a disability is like and how they navigate barriers. Individuals with disabilities are often lumped into an “other” category, Morse said, and “Dis.is” will work to highlight the fact that “people are people, no matter how they encounter the world.”

“Let’s not even focus on their disabilities,” she said. “We just focus on ability.”

Disability Advocates Executive Director Dave Bulkowski said there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to defining disability. He knows that the campaign won’t change every misconception out there, especially given the amount of time they’ve persisted. Still, if a thoughtful dialogue is started and continues beyond the initial yearlong campaign, he’ll be happy.

“For me, success a year from now is having many deeper conversations about living with disabilities,” he said.

Want to join the conversation? Visit the Dis.is website and add your voice.

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Main image photo credit: Disability Advocates of Kent County

Photo credit for images within post: Julie Bitely

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