Speaker encourages disability awareness

Kristine Gill

NBC correspondent John Hockenberry spoke last night to an audience of more than 50 people about the power of his disability. GAVIN JACKSON | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

A few anecdotes into his speech on disability awareness, John Hockenberry had the lights turned off in the Student Center Ballroom. Multicolored lights spun to life as Hockenberry rolled across the stage to show off the accessorized wheels of his wheelchair.

Hockenberry, an award-winning journalist and author, was the key-note speaker for disAbility Awareness Week last night. After a car crash at the age of 19, Hockenberry suffered a spinal lesion and was no longer able to walk.

He said that one of the most astonishing things he’s experienced as a wheelchair-user has been the way people interact with him.

“Something about the way I was occupying physical space made them aware of the chair,” Hockenberry said.

After getting sparkly wheels for his chair at the request of his twin daughters, Hockenberry noticed a change. People in the grocery store didn’t apologize when he passed them in an aisle, and they didn’t dodge him in the airport.

“Kids would talk to me first,” he said. “‘Look at the wheels mommy!’ they’d say.”

Hockenberry said changing his wheels wasn’t just about sparkles and lights.

“The radical change says that our perceptions of other people are in play completely,” he said. “We’re taught to think of rigid categories that are actually easy to break down.”

Hockenberry compared his life changing accident to the events of May 4 at Kent State. He said the world viewed the shootings as an inclusive event, giving no thought to what took place during the aftermath.

“Our experience of disability is bound up in the notion that this happened to you and you survived,” he said. “What (people with disabilities) are doing to survive is part of a deeper human story.”

In a similar comparison, Hockenberry talked about the covenant that is made between a community and a newborn baby. The community commits itself to raising and welcoming the helpless infant into society as it adapts to its new world.

“What if society’s message to every mother of a newborn baby was, ‘wow, good work, see you later’?” Hockenberry said, further stating that this is the message people with disabilities usually receive. Hockenberry proposed that society welcome those with disabilities the way they do vulnerable infants.

Hockenberry hopes that through recognition of this fact, society can work to include people of all abilities.

“Inclusion is a value for all of us,” he said. ” Helping (people with disabilities) to adapt will enrich and enhance the community for all.”

“Disability awareness is something to be proud of all around us,” he said. “Just like my sparkly wheels.”

Contact student affairs reporter Kristine Gill at [email protected]