Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Disabled Speakers: Are We Living Up to Our Responsibilities?

It's that time of the program again...  

The next scheduled speaker is disabled - perhaps by birth, or accident, or violence. Will they wow us with their abilities and inspiring stories, or will they bring out the violin and expect us to be sympathetic even when they bore us to death? 

For the record, I am a disabled speaker. A below the left knee amputee, to be specific. BK for short. There is a belief that being disabled can help open doors in the speaking industry. People enjoy stories of triumph under dire circumstances and impossible odds. The general public wants to be reminded of how good their own life is, and to be thankful they have their vision, hearing, mobility, etc. Facts are facts - and it would simply Karmic justice if our disadvantages work FOR us in this way.

It brings up questions for me, though. Are we (disabled speakers) living up to our responsibilities? Are professional? Do we let our disability trump our message? Do we work at our craft? Do we let ourselves become a one-trick pony? We all know speakers, disabled or not, that fall into these categories. But as a group, I believe we have a responsibility not just to our selves and our audiences, but to EACH OTHER. We must not create and perpetuate our own stereotype. 

5 Ways to Be a Great Disabled Speaker:

1. Learn to speak wellWe have no more right to sound inept than anybody else. If anything, speaking poorly will cause people to wonder just how far our handicap goes. If you have the time, join Toastmasters. If you need to be great NOW, hire a coach.

2. Have a well-rounded messageDiscuss your disability within the context of something greater than yourself. Example: Can't walk? Develop a 'Creative Solutions to Everyday Challenges' type keynote allowing you to use your experience as an illustration, instead of a centerpiece.

3. Give the audience more than expected. If you've filled the room based on the tragic circumstances of your situation, give the audience a message they can take further than the dinner table that night. What did you know before your disability, if applicable, that helped you cope? What lessons have you learned since? Better yet, what about the rest of your life adds to your overall message that will apply to the poor fully-able-bodied audience member?

4. Don't play the anger card. Unless you are heading up a political rally, people don't want to hear about our anger. Sure, we face challenges everyday that create anger towards the world, towards fellow humans, towards ourselves, unless you can tell them how you've dealt with it, and how they can benefit from how you deal with it, it becomes self-righteous and self-indulgent.

5. Don't play the sympathy card. It's so easy to do, without even trying. We don't want their sympathy anyway, do we? We want respect, for ourselves, and our messages.Speech Killer Alert! If you have a disability that's obvious to the audience, don't ignore it. You may be speaking on a completely different topic, and thinking there's no reason to bring it up. But if the audience can see it, it's already brought up. If they're spending their energy wondering what's "wrong" with you, then you and your message is being ignored. 

"I'm disabled, but I don't want to talk about it!"

Fair enough - try one of these two approaches for a quick fix: 

1. Bring it up creatively in your introduction before you ever get up to speak 

2. Toss in a deft self-deprecating remark in your opening. The audience will relax, and listen to you instead of your handicap.

My Plea

Unprofessional Disabled Speakers are everywhere. Unprofessional Fully-Abled Speakers are everywhere as well - but they don't face categorization. I have yet to here anyone complain about bad redhead speakers. Fellow disabled speakers - we have a responsibility to ourselves, and to each other, to be the best speakers in the industry. To speak from our hearts, not our hardships. To bring to our audience what we bring to our lives everyday - the transcendence from disability to distinction.

Below is a short video from W. Mitchell - who truly transcends.


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