I am not sure why but it seems the world wants, needs, desires, seeks to label us. Whether it is your parents, your friends, co-workers and yes even perfect strangers who know nothing about you personally, people invest a lot of time labeling you, categorizing you. Why? That is a question that will haunt us until the day we are but dust blowing in the winds of history. Yet, because it was, it is now, I fear it will always be. So, what do we do to combat the labels others ascribe to us? This isn't an article directed exclusively to those in my blind community, this is one that we all can relate to. Whether you are handicapped or able bodied, or any of the other “Classifications” we use there is a big bold label out there with your name on it. Or, is there? Just because someone printed that label out and wants to pin it on you, is the debate over? With that in mind, I will never assume to know what the life experience of others is or has been. I only know “Me.” As a result, I spend no time labeling others, I don't have the time nor do I possess the powers of a God. What I do have is the ability to work on my label, after all, what you are, who you are is up to you, nobody else. I wrote this quote a few years ago:
“Are you who you want to be or are you busy being the version of you that others want you to be? It is an important question since you will be judged in the end based on the life you lived and the person you were. You own your life so take responsibility for it.” E.L. Burton
Now before you continue reading this, I want you to take a pause. Sit back and close your eyes and think about that for a few minutes because to understand my message, you need to understand the quote. Too often people accept the label given to them. Soon they embrace it and ultimately live up to their label, they hide behind it. Once that happens their label holds them captive because outside that label exist their insecurities. The remedy for insecurity is to develop confidence, a necessity to escape the safe space of the label. Building confidence, being confident in who you are, who you want to be. Doing this is hard, change is hard but the result of surrendering moves you farther away from the person you desire to be, that unique individual buried somewhere inside the shell you call you. I call this “Following the path of least resistance.” Change is in fact difficult, especially when that change involves actual work, a concerted effort to step away from your comfort zone. Now, I want to re-emphasize here that I am writing about “Me” here, however, my life may in fact parallels your life. Change of any kind requires hard work and diligence. Sometimes changing perception, removing the label society has stuck on you is reminiscent of that one label you try and try to peel off only to be left scraping it, soaking it and scraping it some more. The reality is that changing perceptions and changing your attitude about your situation falls under the category of hard work. With that in mind I will introduce another quote that I wrote some years back as I decided to shed the insecurities that had held me in bondage, bound by the ropes and lashes others used to leave me sitting in my path believing that I was “Less Than” because I had what they labeled as a handicap:
“Successful people choose to adapt to their environment rather than waiting for or expecting their environment to adapt to them.” E.L. Burton
As part of my new mission in life, I am committed to showing those in my community that they are far greater than the “Less Than” label of being handicapped. You may be wondering why? It is simple, I believe that there exists a tremendous talent pool out there of individuals society has marginalized. These individuals have been labeled, shelved, granted a paltry sum of government aide and assistance to be hidden in the shadows away from the rest of society perceived as better equipped to deal in the real world. Some of us have broken away, rebelled against conventional thoughts and practices. I am here to tell you that if you have not, if you are busy trying to live up to or be the version of yourself that others expect you to be, you are selling yourself short. Going back to the last quote, it is imperative that we learn to adapt to what life has thrown at us. When I use “Us” I am speaking to my blind brothers and sisters but again, this is applicable to everybody else who finds themselves stuck with a label they simply do not agree with. Adapting is part of the survival instinct. Adapting means that if you lack something, in our case the ability to “See,” then you must sharpen the tools you do possess to make the desired impact you seek for success.
Many of you by now understand what I am saying but you don't know how to take the yoke of lowered expectations off let alone find your purpose. I don't have the ability to do that for you, to lift that yoke and hand you a piece of paper with a map to your purpose. However, I am here to tell you that you do have purpose, that you are in fact “More Than” the label society has placed on you. Many studies by sociologist and those in the mental health arena have consistently shown that across socioeconomic circumstances, cultural differences and the myriad of characteristics that separate us, there exist some basic similarities, intangibles unattached to that which divides us. Deep within each human that has walked the earth, is currently walking the earth and those who will come after us exist the desire to be happy and to dream.
My daughter loves to bust my chops over this line “At the end of the day” because according to her it is a crutch phrase for me but I am going to use it anyway. At the end of the day, this life and the label you are currently wearing are the direct result of choices you have made. Sure, some will say that the choice was made for them, that they had no control over the label. This is the point where I say nonsense, with a caveat. You may not have had the choice of being labeled as “Blind” as is my case. However, the choices you make define what being blind actually means. There are plenty of blind people out there who in spite of that label chose to rise above it and not allow it to define them. Here are just a few: Musicians like Stevie wonder, Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, Ronnie Millsap, Andrea Bocelli and Jose Feliciano. Composers, Rudolf Braun and Francesco Landini. The great Greek orator and thinker Homer. Writers like, Poet John Milton, Helen Keller and Sports writer Ed Lucas. Politicians like, Mathew A. Dunn who was a member of the United States Congress, Henry Fawcet who was a member of parliament and served as Postmaster General in the UK, Thomas Gore was a US Senator, Bob C. Riley was Governor of Arkansas and Thomas D. Schall was a Senator from Minnesota. In the world of billionaires sit Steve Wynn a resort and Casino Mogul and Gordon Gund who is the Co-Founder of the Foundation Fighting Blindness and was the principle owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers franchise. There were even a few Saints, Didymus the Blind, Lutgardis and Pacificus of San Severino.
I have had the pleasure of meeting and knowing some inspirational people the world would label as “Handicapped or Less Than.” These people have shown me that I am capable of more than my assigned label. Throughout history countless blind people shed the label imposed on them by society of “Disabled” and embraced who they wanted to be. Each did this because they had a dream, because they longed to be happy and therefore set out on their journey of discovering who they were and what their contribution would be. Imagine if rather than daring to define themselves, they allowed their assigned label to stick. Imagine if they allowed society to hide them in the shadows, convince them that their worth amounted to a paltry check provided by a government comfortable with setting the bar so low that hope gave way to apathy because offering a handout is easier than giving them a hand-up. What if these inspirational figures who have impacted society believed that self-determination was only available to those who had the right label? Like I stated earlier, there is an amazing talent pool out there, there are artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, business executives and public servants who believe they are “Less Than” because we have a myopic structure that doesn’t see the potential that exists. Therefore, it is up to each one of us to stand up, remove the yoke of low expectations and begin the hard work of defining our situation rather than allowing our situation to define us. Be bold, dare to dream and discover your happiness.