Disabled man tell teens too look beyond the surface

By Mark Hoult

Mark Hoult

Community Press

Campbellford — Speaker and author Norman Kunc had students and staff rolling in the aisles at Campbellford District High School.

“People always ask me, are you going to die?” said Kunc, who was born with cerebral palsy and has spent his life confronting misconceptions about people with disabilities. “So I say, yes, but I have bad news for you, so are you.” 

Kunc, an advocate for the rights of the disabled, drew roars of laughter from his audience in the school’s gym recently, using humorous stories and anecdotes to drive home serious observations on how both kids and adults react to and treat people they perceive as being different.

Kunc was born in Toronto and attended a school for the disabled until he entered Grade 8 at “a regular school,” where he first realized that people often have no idea how to react to people with disabilities. People go out of their way to be nice, but fail to see they are interacting with another person, Kunc said. “How do people treat me? They’re really, really nice to me; God how they are nice to me,” he said.

But people with disabilities don’t want an extra dose of niceness, Kunc said.

“I don’t want you to be nice to me or feel sorry for me or for us to be best buddies. I want to be authentically included,” he said, stressing the need for society to find “creative and innovative” ways to include those with disabilities “in an authentic way.”

Kunc, who has a Bachelor of Humanities degree and a Masters degree in Family Therapy, said people have difficulty interacting with the disabled, in large part because of the prevailing idea that disabilities are abnormal. But that is far from the truth, he said. “There is the general belief that people shouldn’t have disabilities. But it’s inevitable that some people will have disabilities. As long as we have war, moving vehicles and old age, we’ll have people with disabilities.”

The problem is not within the individual with a disability; the problem is in society’s attitude to the disabled, Kunc said.

“When you make things more accessible, you’re not doing something nice for people with disabilities, you’re fixing problems in our society, and once you understand what the problem is in society, you can’t go back.”

Like all people, the disabled have their own life stories, their own narratives, he said, urging students to “seek the story in the stranger” when they are confronted other people who seem different.

“When we meet someone we make a split second decision as to whether they are worth knowing or not,” Kunc observed. “But I like to push myself to seek the story in every stranger. I don’t see this room as a gym. I see it as a library, and everyone of you has the story of your life within you.”

Kunc also urged students to value their diversity, never act out of fear, and to imagine a society “where people have the right to be who they are.”

His message resonated with students.

“I thought it was really inspiring,” said Grade 10 student Kierstyn Sharpe. “He talked a lot about how you can’t just judge somebody on their first appearance, and that’s pretty much what everybody does in this society. You look at somebody and you see that they are not the same as you and you just keep on going, especially at this age.”

Kierstyn said high school is full of groups of people characterized by labels —  emo, jock, prep — that keep them apart from each other.

“That’s why students should make more effort to be inclusive,” she said. “You have to reach out more at this age so you can do more in the future.”

Grade 9 student Angel Wise was also inspired by Kunc’s talk.

“No one chooses to be disabled, so why should we treat them any different,” she said. “Life is how it is; nothing is normal or not normal, it’s just who you are, everybody is who they are.”

Grade 10 student Cole Phiefer said he gained some insight into what it is like to grow up disabled.

“I saw their side of what having a disability is like. I had no idea it was anything like that.”