Inspiration: The fine line

Inspiration.  That word many disabled people don’t want to hear.

”Oh, you’re such an inspiration” we hear many people say.  For what?  Leaving the house?  Being out on our own?  Before I go any further, I just want to say that I DON’T always think that saying a disabled person is inspirational is a bad thing, so let me explain how I see it.

Yes, there have been many times where it has felt excruciatingly patronising when someone has said these words or similar to me, to the point where I’m dying to respond with something that’ll make them think, make them see that I’m no different to anybody else.  Some disabled people hate the term ‘inspirational’ altogether and to a point I do agree.

It can be very frustrating when someone just thinks you’re such an amaaaazing person when you’re doing no more than getting on with your life.  It makes us feel like people are setting us apart from the rest, like they’re using a much smaller measuring stick to gauge how successful we are in life compared to somebody who isn’t disabled.  Maybe even like we’re less of a person because if doing everyday things that everyone else does is inspirational then what have we to aspire to if we have already surpassed people’s expectations?

That said, I think there are plenty of times when it is genuinely meant as a compliment.  Maybe not even that, perhaps they are just in awe and are trying to express that with no intention of suggesting we are ‘less’ in any way.  If we make a fuss every time someone gives us a compliment we will only scare people into not saying anything for fear of getting it wrong!  Then how would we feel?

People have complimented me on my speaking progress in Toastmasters and have in some cases related it to my disability (see my first and second blogs about my experience at Toastmasters) and I don’t consider that to be patronising.  Let’s be honest, how many wobbly people to you see speaking in front of others by choice when they also have a speech impairment?  No, I don’t consider it patronising because I think it is a sign of genuine respect for what I’m doing and I appreciate the compliment.

Someone pointed out to me just last week that complimenting disabled people and saying we’re ‘inspirational’ may also be an expression of a lack of belief in themselves.  People may simply be thinking something along the lines of ‘how on earth do they do that?!  I couldn’t/wouldn’t possibly do that if I was disabled!’  I hadn’t seen it from this angle before, but I think it makes sense.  It’s the same as being inspired by, say, a trapeze artist.  Let’s face it, disability or not, most people are pretty impressed by what a trapeze artist can do because we can’t see ourselves being able to do that in a million years!

I hope, though, that times are changing.  Accessibility and disability awareness are improving all the time, which will mean that gradually seeing disabled people taking an active part in society, going to the gym, doing an adventure sport or driving a car (as long as you can see, please!) will become the norm.  Maybe it will increase people’s self-belief so that these things aren’t seen as inspirational because people can see themselves doing exactly the same thing if they were in our situation.

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The skills we forget we have

A thought occurred to me last night, something that has taken me over a year to realise, and as I wanted to write another blog I decided to share it with you…

I left university a year ago, feeling like I had none of the practical skills that are needed in the world of work.  Sure, I could write a good essay, I could read journal articles and discuss a certain business theory from different angles, but what good was that in the world of work?  I felt like I had nothing to offer apart from theoretical knowledge and the ability to write about it, and I felt like I had to learn those practical skills, and learn them fast.

What I didn’t appreciate at the time, though, was that I did have some practical skills.  For one, I could write!  Yes, I’d spent five years writing academic essays, but that doesn’t mean I can only write in that style.  What’s more, I enjoyed writing.  That’s one of the reasons I set up this blog and after all, if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t have started doing it as a hobby.

I also failed to fully appreciate one of the other skills I was beginning to develop: public speaking.  I knew I was enjoying developing as a speaker and I felt like I had the potential to use this skill in my career.  So why did I still feel like I had no practical skills, nothing that would be useful in the workplace right now?  I think I didn’t consider public speaking to be one of the skills I would need in the foreseeable future, so I saw it as more of a hobby, and perhaps something I could use ‘one day’.  Until that day came, though, I still felt like I needed the basic practical skills needed to get a job.

I’m beginning to realise that these skills, speaking and writing, are more valuable than I ever gave them credit for.  When I’m writing a blog or a speech, it’s always about something that matters to me, and the process makes me think much more deeply about the topic.  This really helps me to form an ever-clearer picture of myself in my mind and further clarify what I think about the world we live in.  I consider myself very lucky to have these skills because they are incredibly powerful, enabling me to communicate my ideas to others effectively.  They’re both things I enjoy and currently do for just that reason, but with them I could choose to do many things.

So maybe I was too concerned about having the ‘right’ skills to enter the workplace, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one.  Looking at what I have now, I’m beginning to think that maybe we’re conditioned to believe we need to develop certain skillsets and get caught up trying to do that rather than doing what we enjoy and appreciating it as a skill in itself.  I’m not necessarily saying we don’t need to develop certain skills, but maybe these will be far more easily learnt or may even be developed automatically when we’re doing what we enjoy and what we’re passionate about.

11 Ways Finland’s Education System Shows Us that “Less is More”.

Fascinating blog about how Finland’s education system is different to that of the US and the UK. We could learn a lot from them!

Filling My Map

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When I left my 7th grade math classroom for my Fulbright research assignment in Finland I thought I would come back from this experience with more inspiring, engaging, innovative lessons.  I expected to have great new ideas on how to teach my mathematics curriculum and I would revamp my lessons so that I could include more curriculum, more math and get students to think more, talk more and do more math.

This drive to do more and More and MORE is a state of existence for most teachers in the US….it is engrained in us from day one.  There is a constant pressure to push our students to the next level to have them do bigger and better things.  The lessons have to be more exciting, more engaging and cover more content.  This phenomena  is driven by data, or parents, or administrators or simply by our work-centric society where we…

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What is Independence?

I’m back! I know it’s been faaar too long since I wrote my last blog post and I’m not going to make any excuses because… well, because I don’t have any!

I’ve been thinking about the subject for this blog post for some time now, because about a year ago I asked myself the question ‘What does it really mean to be independent?’. I consider myself to be extremely independent, and it is very important to me to remain that way. Others don’t see this though, because I’m disabled.

So, what is independence? Or maybe I should start by asking, what has independence meant to you in your lifetime? Maybe it was when you passed your driving test, got your first job or moved into your first house. Maybe it was going to university, leaving school or just moving out of your parents’ house.

Let’s look at the dictionary definition for the word ‘independence’. According to an (admittedly old) Collins dictionary it means to not be dependent or rely on others, completely self-governing and too self-respecting to ask for help. If we take these definitions, then, independence is about doing everything for yourself. How realistic is this, though? Can we really do everything for ourselves without any input whatsoever from anybody else? Surely the nature of humanity is to do things with other people anyway?

I want to briefly illustrate a different meaning of independence. Nick Vujicic is a world-renowned motivational speaker. Between 2007 and 2010 alone he delivered 1000 talks, took 600 flights, spoke in schools, churches, orphanages and made numerous public appearances. Oh, and he reached five million people.

Impressive?

Nick has no arms, and no legs.

But wait, if he’s got no arms and no legs how can he possibly be so independent? It’s because he relies on others to help him with the things he finds difficult so he can get on with living a life, in his words, without limits. His independence is completely the opposite to what the dictionary says it should be, because his reliance on others is what makes him so independent.

It took me a long time to realise that this was true for me, too; that by allowing myself to rely on others I could be so much more independent. The penny finally dropped when I went to Hereward College, a college for disabled students, at 16. I lived there during term-time and had to get used to different people helping me. Now those of you who know me know how stubborn I am, and I guess up until then I’d been stubbornly independent, wanting to do everything I possibly could for myself, regardless of how difficult it might be. Going to college, however, made me realise that it was OK to ask for help sometimes, and that doing this enabled me to do so much more.

Fast forward six years. I left college and moved to Bristol for university and have stayed here since.  I’m still determined to be as independent as possible, but that no longer means doing everything myself. I can’t drive, but I still have a car and employ a driver so I can get where I want to go when I want to go. I employ PA’s to help me around the flat. I don’t need much, but the PA support I have is what has made me so independent. I still do as much as I can for myself, but I don’t have to push it and do absolutely everything. What’s important, though, is that I can direct people to do what I need doing. I may rely on others, but everything they do for me, they’re doing because I’ve asked them to and I’ve given direction as to how I want it done and when I need their help.  That’s independence.

This view of independence is true for everyone, regardless of whether you have a disability or not.  Dependence isn’t necessarily the opposite of independence; in fact, by allowing yourself to rely on somebody else you can create your own independence.

Think back to those moments in your life when you felt you became more independent. Wasn’t there always at least one other person helping you make that transition? After all, I’m sure you didn’t just hop in a car for the first time and start driving down the motorway having had no lessons (at least I hope not…).

So let me suggest that we redefine independence. For me, it means knowing what you want, making your own decisions and living life the way you want to.

Check out Nick Vujicic on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/NickVujicicTV

Getting Stuck Into Toastmasters

I told you in my last blog how I got involved with Toastmasters, but that was only the beginning of the story…

After attending a few meetings I joined and eventually plucked up the courage to do my first speech. In Toastmasters you work through manuals, each of which has a set of projects to complete to write and deliver a speech. These projects help you work on different public speaking skills in a step-by-step manner.

The first speech is about introducing yourself. As I started to plan it I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about myself. How do you figure out how to explain who you are in five minutes? You either have a mental block and can’t think of anything to say about yourself or you realise there is just too much you could talk about. I wrote down a few words that I felt summed up who I am and what I’m interested in (yes, for those of you who are wondering I did write down chocolate). When trying to link these things together to form a speech that wasn’t all over the place with too many different topics I realised that two words stood out from the rest: disability and determination. So I started writing my speech about how my disability has never stopped me from doing anything I want to do.

Before I knew it, it was time to deliver my speech and I was nervously excited. I had practised it a few times so was confident with the content and being within the time limit (it’s amazing how much you can cut out without losing any content when you practise it a few times and realise how much isn’t needed) but I was still nervous about actually going up and speaking, especially as not many of the people there had heard me speak before because there were only a few people at my first meeting. Excitement, however, was not a feeling I had previously associated with public speaking. I’d been up in front of classmates a number of times during my degree and had been terrified by the thought of having to deliver a presentation to them. 

I can’t tell you now exactly why I was excited about giving my first official speech – maybe it was because I was talking about something that I was passionate about, or because I was delivering it to a group of people who were only there to support me and therefore there was no pressure. I realised how good this lack of pressure felt the night before – for once, I wasn’t being tested or marked on how well I did. At the end of the day it didn’t matter if I missed something out or if I somehow messed up during my speech. The whole point of Toastmasters is to provide a safe space where you can work on your public speaking skills, so if my first speech went slightly wrong I could do better next time.

I walked to the front, sat down clutching my iPad and began to speak. As I got into it I became more relaxed, although I still looked at my notes regularly, more as an excuse to not look at the audience than because I couldn’t remember what to say next. I soon came to the end and felt good about what I’d done. I was eager to hear my evaluation – how had I come across? Had I been understood? Had people enjoyed it? I needn’t have worried, though. While my evaluator hadn’t understood every single word he had still understood the vast majority of what I’d said and therefore my message had come across clearly. Other people came up to me during the break to say how much they’d enjoyed it too.

For the second time I won best speaker and went home with more confidence in myself than I’d had in a long time. I had managed to deliver a speech on something I was passionate about and felt held a message for others that people had understood and enjoyed. My speech had reminded one of the guests that night of a motivational speaker called Nick Vujicic who he had seen on TED. He has no arms and no legs but, like me, does not see his disability as a barrier. I looked him up a couple of weeks later (I strongly suggest you type his name into YouTube too!) and was inspired by what he had achieved and by his message to others to live a life without limits as he has done. It was at this point that I began to realise that public speaking could be more than just a hobby for me, it could be part of my career.

Venturing into the world of public speaking

As some of you may know, I’ve been wanting to start writing my own blog for a while, so here it is!  The catalyst for me doing this now is probably Toastmasters, a public speaking club I’ve recently joined which has given me the space and confidence to speak about things I’m passionate about.

Toastmasters is a fantastic organisation that has clubs all over the world where people can improve their public speaking skills. Anyone can join regardless of their skills and confidence in public speaking – if you have the desire to improve you are welcomed with open arms. This is what I loved after going to my first meeting, and what’s more there was no pressure to speak or to join. I could even have been a guest for as long as I wanted.

I surprised myself at my first meeting back in November, which was different to the normal format as everyone had five minutes to prepare a speech and then those who wanted to could deliver it (normally people prepare speeches beforehand). As I wrote mine I wasn’t quite sure whether I wanted to go up to the front or not. When five minutes were up everyone gave their speeches and each time a speech ended I almost volunteered to speak next but waited long enough to see if anybody else would first.

Eventually, I was the only one who hadn’t spoken. If I wanted to speak this was my chance. So I stuck my hand up before I could stop myself! Now I had to deliver. As I started my speech, giving a brief insight into my life, I realised I had plenty to talk about (something my family realised a long time ago!) but in the back of my mind I was very aware of how I sounded to other people. Although I have a speech impairment I can’t hear it myself but I become far more aware of it when I’m consciously trying to speak as clearly as possible.

Suddenly, I realised I’d been speaking for over five minutes. I couldn’t believe I’d been able to find enough to talk about for that length of time. In Toastmasters every speech is evaluated and I was surprised to find that when it came to my evaluation I had come across as calm and confident. Even more surprising to me was that I had definitely been understood well enough for the evaluator to comment on the content of my speech.

At the end of the night, as in every Toastmasters meeting, there was a vote for best speaker. This was a night full of surprises for me as my name and the words ‘best speaker’ were then announced in the same sentence. I went to the front for the second time that night to receive a ribbon. I was slightly worried at first that I’d got the sympathy vote and that people were unintentionally being patronising towards me because of my physical disability and speech impairment. However, I realised that people didn’t have to vote for me and therefore felt that their votes were genuine.

I went home with a great sense of achievement and feeling very enthusiastic. I realised that there was nothing stopping me from joining Toastmasters and exploring the possibilities of public speaking for me.