Sorting ourselves out

“When I was at the Helen-Keller School, I noticed that the deaf people sat at a different table than the blind…I would sit at the blind table.” – Joe Jammer

During a recent conversation with my friend, Joe Jammer, we talked about the groups we belong to and how related groups, for instance people with differing disabilities, can separate themselves. Joe is completely blind, severely deaf, Black, gay, unemployed and a former musician.

We all belong to a list of formal and informal groups. For instance, I am a member of several informal groups: white, blind, unemployed, progressive and tech-savvy. Some formal groups I am in are Wisconsin Rapids Area League of Women Voters, and the American Radio Relay League.

We shift between groups throughout our lives and other people put us in groups without our knowledge or consent all the time. When we put ourselves into a group we call it “self-identifying” and when someone else does it to us we call it “stereotyping.”

There has been a lot of news covering racist and sexist acts in our society lately. These acts are often motivated by how one group feels about another. I am not going to write about that. I would like for you to look inward at how you separate yourselves from others, or self-segregate.

First, I must say that self-segregation is not always bad. We must protect ourselves and our families from bad influences. It can be necessary to distance yourself from high-drama or risk taking people. If you meet someone who drains you of energy or puts you and your family at risk, they should be kept at a distance. However, if you meet someone who challenges your mind and widens your perspective, do not push them away just because they do not share your world view.

We self-segregate because it makes our life easier. When you surround yourself with people who have a similar background, similar life experiences, you do not need to be as careful because people will understand what you mean. Things get more complicated when you step into another group. You may need to explain more, or have things explained to you. It becomes so much easier to say something offensive, rude or not know what to say at all.

This is exactly what we need, what our brains need to be healthy and this is what we need in our society so that it too can be healthy. You see, easier is not usually better, especially when it comes to the health of our brains and our societies. Easy makes us lazy; it actually creates situations where we think less and have a knee jerk reaction more often. These rote responses build up thicker connections in our brain and ultimately make it harder to learn new things.

Disabled people all over the world have been forced to adapt to a world that does not support their needs and far too often appears to not care about their needs. This means that people with disabilities spend much of their time just being disabled, learning to do what they need to live halfway decent lives. This leaves little time, in many cases, for what they want to do.

As an example, two friends of mine and I decided that we would go to a local electronics store using public transportation. We met at a downtown light rail station and took the train to a bus stop where we caught the bus that took us near the store. For my two friends, the trip was about an hour shorter than it was for me. That little experiment used up nine hours of the day for me. How long would it have taken if we took a cab? Two hours.

While mass transit can be a good way to meet people from outside your normal sphere, that still requires that people take the time to actually talk to each other. This means that people need to learn to listen to those who have different experiences, different perspectives, and different beliefs.

Reading a wide variety of perspectives, like online magazines, is a good start. Nothing beats spending time with people for learning about their beliefs and thoughts. Personal interaction is the best way to learn because the communication is two-way. You can ask questions and receive feedback, trade recipes or tips and tricks.

I understand how challenging this can be. People with disabilities have a hard time meeting others due to physical or mental limitations. Low income earners often do not have spending money which is required for many social situations.

Do your best to step outside your normal once in a while though. It can be nerve-wracking, but it can also give you interesting stories to tell later.

I will close with another story of my own. In 1990 I visited Washington D.C. where part of my arranged itinerary was to visit the Pentagon Mall. This was the first four story shopping mall I had ever been in. We had lunch in the very busy food court. I ordered a spicy Italian style sandwich which had red and green peppers in it. While looking for a place to sit, the only two open chairs that I found were at a table with a father and daughter already eating their lunch. They agreed that my companion and I could share the table. For the next half hour, all four of us talked about what made up the best “Italian” submarine sandwich. It may sound a little strange, but this conversation I had with three complete strangers about sandwiches was one of the most memorable moments of my trip to our nation’s capital.