One of our basic needs as people is to feel some sense of belonging to a group. Thousands of years ago, this was a mechanism for survival. Those that belonged to a strong tribe were better protected, had more access to food, and had more mating opportunities. Although no longer a necessity for our physical survival, our desire to belong to certain groups is still one of the strongest driving forces within us. Be it a certain club, a team, or a high school clique, we all have felt that great desire to be part of a certain group. As a disabled person, this drive can be hard to satisfy since my physical situation makes me appear different from most people, and most groups are made up of people who are similar in most respects. Luckily though, I have had the skills and good fortune to navigate my social environment well enough, that I have been able to fill this need. My first real encounter with having to do this occurred when I went off to college, and it is something I am going to share with you today.
I grew up in a very small town in Northern Indiana. Since I lived there my entire life, the kids I went to kindergarten with were the same people I graduated with years later. When you are 5 years old being in a wheelchair is cool. All the kids want to push you around or get a ride. I was like the Justin Bieber of my daycare. So, as my classmates and I grew up together, they didn’t see me as a disabled person, I was just Scott. Yes, I was in a wheelchair, but that was as much a part of me as having brown hair or blue eyes or a cool toy. This is something that I am forever grateful to my classmates for, as it made growing up much easier socially. I know without a doubt that my life would be much different if not for the unquestioning acceptance of my peers. The flipside of this though, is that it also meant that I never had to deal with trying to fit into a new social group as a disabled adult. As I was going off to college, I realized that I was going to have to break into a new social milieu with people who had not known me my entire life, and I was nervous. Everyone worries about fitting in when they go to college, but I was even more anxious having this added dimension to deal with. The last thing I wanted after working so hard to get the full college experience was to be a social outcast, or worse yet, to be the person the group begrudgingly includes out of pity (like when you let your younger sibling tag along).
Now, it is important to know that at Notre Dame, where I went to school, there are no fraternities or sororities, so the dorms (all of which are single sex) become a strong source of pride and identity. As a result, this is the group you really want to belong to. So I arrive that first night for freshman orientation, or Frosh-O, as it is called at ND, and I’m nervously introducing myself to my dorm brothers, shaking hands, trying to remember everybody’s name, and then it is time for the campus tour that night. At this point my anxiety skyrockets. I am thinking “What if there are steps or a curb? How will I find my way and keep up?” I didn’t want to not fit in or draw attention to myself the first night, since that would create a first impression where I am defined by my disability. I wanted to be Scott Drotar, the sarcastic, quick witted freshman, and not Scott Drotar, the guy in the wheelchair.
As I’m anxiously following the tour, one of the RAs starts walking beside me making small talk. He eventually says, “Up here there are steps, but come with me and I will show you a shortcut.” I felt a little better. A little further on, we came to a curb, and I could again feel the panic rising within me. What was I going to do? It was dark, and I couldn’t see a ramp nearby. Within seconds though, 4 RAs were around me, they said hold on and lifted my chair up onto the sidewalk. I never asked for anything. They just did it, smiled, and went right back to leading the tour. It was then that I had a revelation. I didn’t need to try to fit in or belong, because in their eyes I already did.
I had already gotten into Notre Dame and Keough Hall (my dorm, Go ‘roos). They already saw me as their brother, and brothers look out for each other. Over my 4 years in Keough Hall, this feeling of belonging only got stronger. I always had people to eat with, study with, and make all of the numerous bad (but fun) decisions that college students make. In my final 2 years, I even became a leader within the dorm, serving on hall council and helping freshman feel like they too were part of the group. I was so happy and fortunate to have these amazing men of Keough to help me learn this lesson about life. As worried as I was about being an outcast, I couldn’t see that I had nothing to worry about because I was already in the group. There wasn’t some secret handshake or oath I had to take. They had accepted me as I was, and the fact that I was disabled didn’t even matter to anyone but me.
I think this happens to a lot of people who are different in some way. They worry so much about how they are different, that they don’t stop to realize that no one else even cares about that. This self imposed ostracism is something we can all learn from. In a lot of situations we are our own greatest enemy. We become so focused on how we are different and may not fit in, that we assume that others will see us the same way. In reality though, these differences are barely noticeable to others, and they pale in comparison to all of the ways we are similar. By focusing on and broadcasting your positive qualities and what you can bring to the group, you will feel better about yourself, project more confidence, and come across as someone who others want to be with. By concentrating on your good qualities and putting yourself out there feeling like you belong, you will find that before too long, and often without even noticing it, you will find that you already do.