Research has shown that you decide what you think of someone in the first 7 seconds of coming into contact with them. This obviously makes first impressions very important, since it is much more difficult to change someone’s opinion of you than to reinforce an already existing one. A major flaw in assessing people this way though, is that the initial judgments you make before you really know someone are based primarily upon stereotypes and generalizations that may or may not be applicable to any one person. These types of judgments are something I have had to fight to change throughout my entire life. In working to overcome the stereotypes people place on me due to my disability, I have learned a lot about acceptance, life, and people, and I have grown as a person.
Even though I have been judged unfairly and inaccurately by people for most of my life, my first real lesson on the dangers of stereotypes was a situation where I was the one making unfair assumptions. As I mentioned in my post, “Pay It Forward,” when I was younger I was the MDA goodwill ambassador for my region. This meant that I would go to fundraising events to be a face for the cause, look cute, and raise money. One of MDA’s biggest supporters is Harley Davidson, and every year they would hold a huge event that I would attend as goodwill ambassador. This event was a big barbecue type party, and afterwards all of the bikers, who had already gotten people to donate so much money per mile, would ride several miles for MDA.
I was about 6 years old the first year I attended this event, and when I got out of my van to the sounds of Lynnyrd Skynyrd blaring, looked at the people around me, and saw nothing but tattoos, beards, and leather clothes, I was scared. I had never met people like this in person, and these “biker types” are always the people they tell you to stay away from in the “stranger danger” cartoons in school. Like any frightened child, I stuck really close to my mom, didn’t talk much, and tried to be as invisible as I could, which as goodwill ambassador was the opposite of what I was supposed to be doing. Every now and then a biker would come try to talk to me, and I would just smile, fail to make eye contact, and say hi. I was afraid of these people who were giving so much of themselves to help people like me, just because of the way they looked, and I didn’t even know any of them. Luckily though, then something happened that changed everything about how I see people.
A woman about my mom’s age who looked like she could have been a grade school teacher came over and asked my mom if she could borrow me to show me something really cool. My mother was fine with it, and this lady looked “normal,” so off I went with this kind woman. We walked for about 5 minutes as she asked me about school and my life, and then we got to this huge Harley Davidson chopper with a badass sidecar, and she stopped. She said, “This is my husband’s bike. We ride all the time together. Have you ever been on a motorcycle?” I told her I had not, and she went on to tell me all about her ride. She then said, “Oh, there is my husband. I want you to meet him.” She waved to someone behind me, and I waited for her husband to walk over while I continued admiring the glorious, two wheeled chariot of the open road in front of me. I heard a deep “Hey there,” and when I looked up to introduce myself, and much to my surprise, I was face to face with the biggest, scariest looking biker you can imagine.
He was over 6 feet tall, had an American flag bandana on his head, a full, bushy beard, was dressed in head-to-toe black leather, and was smoking Marlboro Reds. I tried to talk, but no words would come out. The nice woman noticed my distress and said, “Honey, this is Scott, and I was showing him our hog.” She kept talking and putting me at ease, and then the biker said, “Hell, I brought my sidecar. Why don’t we all go for a ride?” I was still pretty uneasy about this giant biker, but I trusted the nice lady and really wanted a ride, so I said I was in. The woman said she had to go change, and then we would go. A few minutes later a biker momma with tattoos down both arms, tight leather pants, and high heeled boots comes over and says, “It feels so good to get out of those work clothes. You ready?” It was the nice lady that had been my friend all afternoon, but now she was in her true form.
Even at this young age, my mind was blown. In less than 15 minutes this woman had transformed from someone who you would expect to see teaching Sunday school, into a biker babe that would fit in perfectly at a Hell’s Angels rally. I realized in that moment how unfair I had been in judging these people because of how they looked. It finally clicked for me that just like people would make assumptions about me because of my wheelchair, which bothered me a lot at that age, that I was doing the same exact thing to these bikers. They were giving up their time and energy to help people they do not even know, and I thought they were these dangerous, scary degenerates. After having this epiphany and noticing what a hypocrite I was being, I decided that I was not going to do this any more.
From that point on, I was no longer at all afraid of these amazing Harley Davidson riders. I became a social butterfly the rest of the day. I actually rode in 2 sidecars that afternoon, which is still an experience I think about and treasure. I met so many interesting and selfless individuals, and I helped to raise a lot of money for MDA. The nice lady gave me a stuffed hog dressed like a Harley Davidson biker to take home, that I still have to this day. Every time I look at it sitting on the shelf, I think of that pivotal day in my life, and I am reminded of how wrong your assumptions about people can be.
Even though I had learned how unfair it is to judge others before you get to know them, that did not mean that everyone else had learned it too. For as long as I can remember I have had to constantly work to overcome the preconceived notions about me because of my disability. Learning how to cope with and most effectively manage these situations, was the other major lesson I learned from experiencing judgment. And I will tell you all about it in tomorrow’s post.