Iíve written one article on self esteem and disability, but it is such an important issue that I canít help writing another. Self-image can be forever changed after an accident, injury or illness. These views of yourself can also be corrupted if youíve had a disability all your life.
We are overlooked by mainstream media in marketing campaigns, television and magazines. Itís improving, but more positive images of people with disabilities are needed.
Media floods people without disabilities with their perception of the ďidealĒ. Add a disability and itís nearly impossible to live up to standards in order to fit in.
As a child, I was overweight and still am, wore thick glasses, my legs were supported by long leg, steel braces. I was not in the running for a baby food commercial or childrenís clothing catalog. My parents instilled in me that I was just as good as any other kid with or without a disability. I was smart, funny, talented and able to do many things other kids with disabilities could do. Children living with a disability often feel inadequate in a society that views any physical imperfection as a sign of unworthiness. These feelings in a childís mind are further seeded by childrenís stories. The Ugly Duckling is made fun of because he does not look like the others. Physical differences such as short stature or a missing limb are used as traits of evil in a person, Š la Peter Pan or Rumpelstiltskin. These things--no matter how innocent or unintentional--plant roots of self-doubt that grow with casual remarks or exclusion of realistic media portrayals of disability.
We wonder to ourselves: What attractive model out there has leg braces? A catheter hanging from under his or her clothes? Uneven limbs? A scar blooming across their face? Few come to mind. Thatís hard for someone with a disability.
There are few positive portrayals of individuals with disabilities on television or in magazines for children with disabilities to admire. They watch telethons to look for a role model, but will learn children on the telethon are portrayed as helpless, pitiful and less special than anyone else their age. Even Ms. Wheelchair America promotes accomplishments of women with disabilities over appearance, but still looks like a ďtypicalĒ beauty queen.
When I was 16 years old, I was Junior Miss Wheelchair North Carolina 1990-1991. Yes, the glasses werenít as cumbersome by that age and I had developed into a reasonably attractive young woman with some semblance of self confidence, but still on shaky ground with the slightest pitiable look or stare. I was a pageant queen who desperately wanted to fit in with my counterparts without disabilities. The pageant queens with perfect legs never smelled funny because of incontinence and had perfectly coifed boyfriends to escort them everywhere.
While most parents want their children to see a good example like Mark Zupan, an extreme wheelchair rugby athlete, super fit Paralympians or Marlee Maitlin an actress who is Deaf, few come to mind.
The lack of successful images send the message people with disabilities canít do certain jobs or be all we want and deserve to be. What are some things you can do to help build self-esteem? Spend television and magazine-free time with your child to try to counteract the effects of this flood of unhealthy images. Talk openly about images an individual with a disability is exposed to. Think about how much work, how many hours and assistants it took to look that good! Who of us has that much time and energy to devote to perfection? Encourage your child to pursue what he or she is good at, whether itís something that strengthens their intellect or physical well-being. I participated after school activities to boost my feeling of being smart and talented.
Be open to trying new things, to not only trying disability-focused activities, but activities in integrated settings as well. After all, people with disabilities should have skills to get along with others without disabilities and vice versa. In every conversation about self-perception, emphasize disability as a small part of you.
On an external level, find ways to personalize wheelchairs or crutches with fun colors and character images an individual enjoys. Look for fun bags to discreetly cover a catheter or ostomy bag. I use a lacy garter as a band to secure my catheter leg bag. Who says you canít feel pretty and sexy with a leg bag?! Orthopedic shoes arenít the ďFrankenstein chicĒ look of my youth. They come in better shapes and looks than they used to.
Above all, work with friends, family and worship groups to anchor self esteem. Make sure an individual of any age with a disability knows he or she is loved just the way they are.
Content copyright © 2009 by Monica J. Foster. All rights reserved.
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