Jason Olsen, Senior Policy Advisor, United States Department of Labor
2016-2017 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to the United Kingdom
People with disabilities hate the word “inspiration.” I think it’s because the term is used too often by people without disabilities in their efforts to describe the conquering of everyday mundane tasks by people with disabilities (i.e. shopping, school, parenting, working, leaving the house). By using the word “inspiration” in this context it not only diminishes the true concept of what is inspirational, but it also inherently implies that the person without the disability fully understands the barriers that the person with the disability faces on a daily basis.
Why am I telling you this? Well because as much as I hate the word, I am going to break with tradition and use it to describe myself. However, I am not using it in the context of me being an inspiration to others, I am using it describe how my participation in the Fulbright Program has led me to inspire myself.
Wait, you may say, is such a thing even possible? Yes, absolutely it is. I am sure there are things that you’ve accomplished recently that you are very proud of. Whether it is finishing a project, learning something new, or simply investing your time in something you believe in. We are constantly finding new ways to encourage ourselves to do better, to think differently, or to push ourselves to grow. This happened to me shortly after arriving in the UK.
To kick off my research I met with a myriad of representatives from academia, disability rights groups, non-government organizations, and others. We shared ideas, discussed barriers, and worked on new ideas for solutions. And for the first time, I saw how my knowledge of national disability policy, employment, advocacy, diversity, and other topics of inclusion could be beneficial to the international arena of equality.
It inspired me to look at new issues, to expand my comprehension of them, and to create new paths of research previously unexplored by others. It took me out of my comfort zone, and I completely loved it.
I am reinvigorated by my opportunity to learn more and to expand my expertise. I am honored to have the privilege to share my expertise with students about topics that I am so passionate about. And the best part is that I am only half way through my Fulbright experience.
Please don’t make the mistake of believing that I am implying that it has been an EASY journey full of flowers and butterfly kisses. Traveling with a disability is never easy. I have been stranded (sometimes with my kids in tow), physically stuck, frozen, bumped, bruised, manhandled, terrified, embarrassed, ostracized, and insulted.
However, I have also been shown the best traits that people have to offer. Things like empathy, kindness, compassion, and more. These experiences serve as a reminder to me that life is what you make of it and that it truly is our choice as to whether we focus on the positive or the negative aspects of our circumstances. It inspires me to use my talents as much as possible to help others, to try to focus and embody the best traits of our species, and to know that it really is up to each of us to decide upon the impact we are going to have on the world and on each other.
I know that I won’t be able to do it all day, every day. Especially if I am pushing my wheelchair uphill over an interstate overpass in the cold rain because the bus didn’t have a working lift and the cab company has no wheelchair accessible cabs available. In fact, I might be cursing like a sailor the whole way. But I can always try the next day to re-inspire myself to try again. And what the heck, if this blog or what I have said inspires you, then I give you permission to be inspired. But only this one time!