Stacy Ellingen

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Stacy’s Journal:  The Paying It Forward  Movement

By: Stacy Ellingen
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Whether it’s letting somebody go first at a four-way stop, buying the next person’s coffee in a drive-thru line, or donating your time to ring bells for the Salvation Army, many people enjoy “paying it forward.”  Giving time, talents, or money to others makes people feel good about themselves.  Especially during the holiday season, there seem to be a lot of feel good stories about people helping others.  Of course, unfortunately, in today’s world, people have to be careful of what and who they are paying it forward to (making sure it’s a legitimate cause).  When paying it forward, people usually like to remain anonymous and don’t want any recognition for their actions.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that people with disabilities are often recipients of the paying it forward notion.  While the action is very appreciated, the recipient usually can’t help but wonder why he/she was chosen?  Was it because I look different?  Was it because I needed help eating?  Did I accidentally cause a disturbance when I had a muscle spasm or hit a table with my wheelchair?  Did I look like I needed help?  Did they feel bad for my family and I?  Of course, I can only speak from having a physical disability, but these are the questions I ask myself when somebody pays it forward to me.

A few months ago, while on the way back from Florida, my parents and I stopped at a steak house in Kentucky for dinner.  We had a few cocktails and then just had salad bar for dinner.  We were tired from driving and wanted to get bed early.  When my dad asked for the bill, the waitress told us that it had been taken care of.  All three of us were like, “what?”  We tried to get the waitress to tell us who paid for it, but, of course, she was sworn to secrecy.  We told her to thank whoever paid for it and left in complete shock.  We didn’t know what to do.  My mom kept saying, “there are good people in the world.” While I agree that’s true, I personally felt very awkward.  In those circumstances, you almost have to assume that the people have pity on your situation. 

Another time, years ago, my family and I were out for fish with my grandparents at a restaurant in my hometown, and somebody anonymously picked up the whole bill.  Again, while we were very appreciative, everybody felt very awkward—especially my grandparents.   While we’ll never know the reason behind the kind act, when you are or you’re with someone who visibly has some challenges, it’s only natural to wonder if it was done out of pity.

It’s well known in the disability community that people normally don’t want to be pitied just because they have different abilities.  Although, thanks to awareness and advocacy efforts over the years, it has greatly improved, but the truth is that the general population still pities those of us with disabilities.  Often, people don’t know what to do or how to help when they see someone with different abilities out in public, so they try to help by paying for something.  Speaking for myself, while I’m incredibly appreciative when this happens, I’d much rather educate the person by sharing a little bit of my story with him/her.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to fix this stigma other than to keep advocating and educating.  We, as people with disabilities, should try to pay it forward as well.  Remember, it doesn’t have to be monetarily.  There are many different ways to pay it forward.  Whether it’s volunteering at an animal shelter, shoveling your neighbor’s driveway, bringing a meal to a homeless shelter, or simply smiling at someone who’s having a bad day, everybody can pay it forward in some way or another.

How do you pay it forward?  I challenge you to pay it forward at least once during this holiday season. 

***The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of InControl Wisconsin, the Network or any of our sponsors.


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