Changing the Perspective About Disability by Tiana Tozer
— TEDxMtHood is honored to introduce Tiana Tozer as one of our 2016 speakers. —
I had so many dreams about what I wanted to be and do when I grew up. I was going to: be the ambassador to France, join the Peace Corps, have an international career. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would grow up to become disabled.
After a devastating car crash on May 14, 1988, followed by three months in the hospital, I could no longer walk. I remember the day I realized that my life would never be the same.
“I’m not going to France next year, am I?” I asked my mom from my bed in ICU.
“No you’re not. So, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” I wailed, breaking down with the realization that my life, along with my legs, was in pieces. Everything I’d planned and dreamed was no longer within my reach; I had just entered the first mourning stage of grief.
“I think you should come back to school in the fall and finish your education,” Mom said.
It was that conversation, and that realization of my mother’s expectations, that defined how I would view my disability. Despite this horrible thing that had happened to me, my mother never doubted I would finish my education, get a job, and live my life to the best of my ability.
As I reentered the world as a person with a disability (PWD), I noticed that people treated me differently. They looked at me with pity or didn’t look at me at all. They yelled at me as if I were deaf, assuming that, because my legs didn’t work, my mouth and mind were also affected. They said things like, “you’re so courageous; I could never do what you’ve done.”
People who didn’t know me defined me by one thing: my disability. To protect myself from unintended cruel comments, I developed a sarcastic wit and, with humor and a willingness to talk about my disability, I worked to make people comfortable around me.
In 1989, as an intern in Washington D.C., I lobbied for the Americans with Disabilities Act. A year later when the Act passed, only 16% of PWDs achieved post-secondary education, and PWDs experienced a 70% unemployment rate (double that of the non-disabled).
Twenty-six years later, those statistics are nearly identical – yet people still think the answer to increasing inclusion for PWDs is more legislation.
Disability is the fastest growing minority in the United States today and it is also the only minority anyone can join at any time. One in three Americans will experience a disability in their lifetime; one in five are already disabled, dealing with diabetes, ADHD, Aspergers, dyslexia, mental illness, just to name a few… and the cost to the American taxpayer is $260 billion a year, not including unrealized taxes.
If any other minority had a 70% unemployment rate, Americans would be up in arms. So why is it okay for people with disabilities?
Why are PWDs – why am I – not expected to live the same life as our able-bodied counterparts?
Why are we allowed to get away with behavior that wouldn’t be acceptable coming from a non-disabled person? The well-intentioned, but handicapping “Pity Pass” that allows me to behave completely inappropriately without consequence – why, because I’m a poor disabled girl?
Why, when I apply for a job, do I still have to strip my resume of the things that I should be most proud of, like being Paralympian? I’ve been disabled longer than I was able-bodied – for 27 years. I’m over it and I want to help you get over it too.
That’s what I’m going to talk about in my TEDx Talk: changing the perspective about disability. Inclusion of PWDs in our society cannot be legislated – it has to be educated – and that change in attitude on both sides of the equation is what will really help PWDs achieve education, employment, and inclusion.
A former humanitarian aid worker, Tiana Tozer developed and implemented an innovative program in Iraq that taught advocacy to people with disabilities. She also ran a program that taught 10,000 women to read and write. Tiana served as State Director in Southern Kordofan, Sudan, until being extracted from the civil war in 2011. Since saving the world didn’t work out, she now makes her living as a speaker, consultant and author, addressing topics such as tenacity, leadership and disability and consulting on 503 (disability) compliance for federal contractors.
Injured in 1988 by an intoxicated driver, it took her four years and thirty-four surgeries to walk again. She advocated for tougher DUI laws and victim’s rights.
A member of the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team for five years, Tiana is a two-time Paralympic medalist, bringing home bronze and silver. She has been featured on NBC Nightly News, NPR’s Here and Now, and The Takeaway. The author of numerous essays including “I lost my ‘I’ in Iraq,” “Minority Report” and “The Brat,” she is currently working on her memoir: American Noncombatant.