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Disability rights advocate delivers speech at Mount Holyoke College

Norman Kunc wants you to know that he is just like everyone else, only he happens to have cerebral palsy.

The humor-laden speech that Kunc delivered Wednesday night at Mount Holyoke College titled, “A Life Beyond Compare: Disability, Normalcy and Transformation,” had a receptive and enthusiastic audience of about 100 people in Gamble Auditorium. Kunc, who displayed a big smile and the salt and pepper ponytail during his speech, focused on the need for respect and understanding for disabled people who, he says, are simply an element of human diversity.

Kunc lived up to his expectation as a funny, modern storyteller, starting off his speech by telling the audience, “I want to tell you a series of stories about my favorite topic: Me.”

Beginning with memoirs about his life before his realization that he has a right to be disabled, Kunc said that for the majority of his youth he lived with the idea that he should minimize his disability to be as valued in society as possible.

“[About 25 years ago] I was in a pub with all of my friends and one of them told a story that had me in it. I was having fun but when he came to the part where he was quoting something I said he imitated the way I speak,” Kunc said. “I was upset about that so I pulled him aside later and asked him why he had done that. He replied ‘Norman, why are you trying to be non-handicapped?’

“No one had ever asked me that before.” Kunc said. “So I thought about it, drank a few beers and realized: I have a right to be disabled.”

Kunc emphasized his thoughts that society needs to accept disabled people just as it accepts different ethnicities and cultures. “Disabled people have always been around since the beginning of time,” he said. “In biblical times, the Ming dynasty, the Mayans, the Ancient Greeks and Romans; all of these cultures had people with disabilities. I mean, they were all killed, but they were there. And disabled people will always be around. It’s just a part of normal human diversity.”

The slideshow presentation behind Kunc displayed several optical illusions to help demonstrate his point that. Once one understands that disability is a normal part of human diversity, whole changes in perception occur. Once you see the image within the image, you will never be able to not see it again.

Seeing disability as diversity is the first step for integration into society, Kunc explained. He used many personal experiences as examples of why segregated schools and communities are not beneficial to disabled people; they only hide the problem from the rest of the world.

“Segregated programs don’t work,” Kunc said. “You learn best in your community. I don’t care how great of a swim instructor you are, you just can’t teach someone to swim in the parking lot of a pool.”

Kunc attended a segregated school himself until the age of 13, and noted that “the biggest lesson I learned from being at a regular school was that I was more similar to the other students than I was different from them. It was such a revelation that I wasn’t the only one that was nervous to go to a new high school my freshman year.”

In addition to his message about acceptance and integration, Kunc also spoke about seeing disabled people as equals. He explained why benevolence is the biggest challenge after posing the question, “When does our impulse to help others get in the way of seeing each other as equals?”

“Non-disabled people are always trying to be so nice,” Kunc said. “They would never come up to me and say that I am inferior, they say that ‘I just have certain needs.’” But Kunc does not believe that disabled people need as much help as society believes.

Using a story about his experience at an airport, Kunc explained why he believes benevolence is the biggest problem. “These people just come out of the woodwork,” he said about an overly-helpful staff member. “She asked me if I had a flight to catch. So I said to her, ‘you mean I’m not at the bus stop?’” Kunc used sarcasm in multiple instances as a way to stand up for his disability. “Because people are so nice to people with disabilities, we can’t get over that hump to gain real respect,” he said.

Videos of people in wheelchairs racing, ballroom dancing and even landing back-flips helped drive home his message that disabled people can function just fine in society, but first they need to be included. “Inclusion is not about being polite or politically correct. It’s about innovation and creativity,” Kunc said.

Wrapping up the evening with an Arabic music video about the need for disabled people to be accepted by society, Kunc received a lengthy round of applause from the audience.

“His speech was amazing; so inspiring,” said Ohemaa Polu, a student at MHC. “It just goes to show that there is no point in segregating that particular group of people from society.”

“That was the most enlightening and inspiring thing,” Natalia Alvarez, another MHC student said. “He offered so many tools to accept diversity and to embrace it. He proved that we can really learn from people with disabilities.”

Christa Romano can be reached at cromano@student.umass.edu.

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