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Word Watch: Realistic

Word Watch: Realistic

For our first Word Watch transition blog, PEAK enlisted friend and colleague Ian Watlington to contribute his wisdom and advice on how to avoid the “red flags” during the transition journey in order to move forward toward positive futures. We hope you enjoy hearing from Ian.

Word Watch: Realistic
By Ian Watlington

It’s a question everyone gets asked at various stages in his/her life: What do you want to be when you grow up? As life goes along, such a question and its answer change - even get distorted - if you are a person with a disability. Quickly the word “realistic” gets added into the equation. This is a “red flag.” This is a word to watch out for.

On its surface, the notion of being “realistic” seems benign and even practical. This is not always the case.

As a young person with a disability reaches the formative years of transition, both developmentally and legally, the focus must zero in on the answer(s) to the question, what do you want to do when you grow up? This, for most, is not a sterile clinical exercise that plots out pros and cons on a sheet of graph paper. Instead, it should initially be a strengths and interests based journey, an exploration, that is a bit dreamy. People with disabilities engaged with the educational and vocational rehabilitation worlds are often not afforded this critical and fun developmental process. “Realism” seeps in and acts like a giant pink elephant in the room on which nobody can stop focusing.

When this pink elephant is in the room, it sucks up almost all the oxygen. The system, and often families, can no longer see dreams or unique possibilities. Instead it becomes easier to seek refuge in the sterile, carefully plotted graph. Lots of people want to be Broncos, movie stars, baseball players and more. Systems thrive when young people list such things as it validates the fixation on the pink elephant and the lack of additional thought because these things are perceived as not being “realistic.”

Inside every “outlandish” dream lies a trove of information that can inform what the person with a disability wants to and can do. For example, the idolization of all things football could point to the need for an active working environment, the desire for notoriety/respect, the want for a uniform, for crowds and for cheering.

People with disabilities are not allowed to dream like their “typical” peers. They are often subject to endless evaluations and analysis in order to reach the land where “realism” lives and risk-taking cannot be found. “Realism” at high doses kills dreams and bruises spirits. That is unacceptable! Discussions about what the future holds, no matter the disability, should not be ones where the concept of what is “realistic” is used as a baton to smack down a dream. Rather, realism, when used for good, can raise up dreams and ready them for meaningful excavation. That is why “realism/realistic” is a red flag and a word to watch out for.

Oh, by the way, people who are overly realistic and risk-adverse do NOT make history. I am just sayin’…

Here are a couple of related resources that I think you might enjoy:

About Ian Watlington

Photo of Ian WatlingtonIan (pictured right) is a Colorado native who now lives in Washington, D.C. and works at the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) providing technical assistance on issues surrounding mental health, self-advocacy and public policy. Ian has spent over a decade as a professional advocate and uses his personal story as a person with a disability to inform his work. Ian has worked on special education issues in Colorado and gained a reputation as a storyteller and public speaker, sharing stories about life with a disability and the human condition in general, in both local and national venues. Ian is a self-professed nerd who enjoys laughing, thinking, reading, independent and foreign film viewing, but most importantly, pushing the envelope. He holds a degree in sociology and a minor in political science from Guilford College in NC.