From O&M Division newsletter, Spring 2007
Maintaining Self-Esteem -- Who Knew It Would Be a Problem?
by Christie Gilson

Introduction by Dona Sauerburger, COMS
It is essential for each of us to feel confident, good about ourselves, and respected. In order to be successful and happy, we need self-esteem, and restoring self-esteem is one of the most important goals of O&M instruction. However, self-esteem should never be taken for granted -- it is extremely fragile, and easily crushed by things we cannot control. Christie Gilson's experience in Asia (click here for story) poignantly illustrates the transient nature of our self-esteem. We appreciate her sharing her story with us and inspiring us with her struggle to maintain her self-respect and self-esteem, there is a lot we can learn from it for ourselves and our consumers.

As a doctoral candidate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I was awarded a Fulbright grant to conduct the research for my dissertation in Hong Kong during 2006. Having traveled extensively in the past, I was excited to embark on this adventure and was particularly keen to learn how disability is perceived in Asia. Many professionals in the disability field and friends extended warm hospitality to me in China, Taiwan, and Singapore. They tolerated my clumsy attempts to speak the most basic words in Chinese. I am profoundly grateful to those who went out of their way to be kind and friendly to me during my sojourn abroad.

However, I experienced plummeting self-esteem during the first few months of my time in Asia. My inability to speak the local language, and the well-intentioned but often dangerous attempts of others to help me, weighed on my spirit heavily. Clear communication between individuals who do not share a common language is even more frustrating when one cannot read facial expressions.

But more importantly, events transpired which caused me to become almost ashamed of having a disability, despite the fact that I am normally proud of my blindness. Of course this further depleted my sense of self-worth. In Hong Kong when I was waiting at the entrance to the subway, someone thought I was a beggar and handed me money. Three strangers at a worship service touched my eyes and started praying for my healing without asking my permission first. The leader of a Bible study I briefly attended was more concerned with healing my visual impairment than acknowledging my legitimacy as a child of God.

In Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton), China, when my sighted colleague and I tried to enter a restaurant, the staff welcomed my colleague with smiles and greetings but when they realized I was blind, they refused to let me enter. At a friendship store, when I asked for assistance to purchase souvenirs, the management said that helping me would be too big of a responsibility for them, and they refused. A taxicab driver shouted at me to get out of his vehicle. All of these events were corroborated by sighted people who speak Mandarin.

As my disbelief about the accumulating degradation and discrimination mounted, I recalled our much beloved Rosa Parks. I realized that stories of the civil rights movement may be romantic as we look back, but for those who endured the ill-treatment, it must have been terrifying and difficult for them to maintain their self-respect. Even though I knew that it was wrong for people to treat me the way they did, I began to blame myself for being the one causing trouble. When such negative events kept happening, I began internalizing the messages that had been so clearly and repeatedly communicated to me. I became increasingly heartsick, and afraid of the reactions to my blindness from strangers and friends alike. Until I developed adequate coping mechanisms, I retreated to my dormitory room and only sought companionship with a few trusted Chinese and Western friends. My dear Chinese friend, Honglin, listened as I recounted what had happened in her country and encouraged me to write about my experiences in order to spark positive change in China.

Gradually, I learned to reverse the effects of the persecution and inappropriate pity. For those who blatantly discriminated against me, I characterized them as victims, and for those who pitied me, I pitied them for their narrow views about life. I sought out Chinese friends who were blind and told them my stories, and together we laughed at the antics of the ill-informed sighted people who made me feel so small.

The damaging effects of under-developed or diminished self-esteem can be long-lasting and profound. I share this story with you in hopes that others who have experienced similar situations feel strengthened by my resolve to keep holding my head up high. I salute people who remain in foreign lands and strive to understand cultures different from their own, even when such adventures leave them vulnerable to discrimination or degradation. Those who are brave enough to face and even confront discrimination deserve my unfettered respect, for I now comprehend the price they pay.

And if my robust self-esteem was so affected by the reaction of people around me in the Orient, I can only imagine what the effect of similar experiences must be on the development of self-esteem for people with disabilities who are born and raised in such an environment. China stands at the cusp of being the most formidable economic power in the world. As the lifestyle of its billion plus people steadily improves, it is my fervent wish that all Chinese people with disabilities be included in its newly-won prosperity. Therefore, for those of you who love to travel and learn about and develop a respect for other cultures, and who care about the quality of life of people with disabilities, I urge you to explore China in its vast complexities and contradictions. In stepping out of your comfort zone, your understanding of global issues will deepen, and you will likely feel rejuvenated in your call to empower people with disabilities.

NOTE: For more stories and details of Christie Gilson's experiences in China and Hong Kong, go to Christie's travel blog, and for the diary of Dona Sauerburger's trip to Asia, including features of accessibility and people with disabilities, go to her Diary from Asia.

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