What do you think when you hare the word “disability?”

I think it’s mostly a label. America is constantly looking for way to label people and things. People with dark skin used to be called “Negro,” until that word was deemed offensive, to be replaced by “black.” Soon enough, Jesse Jackson got offended by that word and insisted on everyone using “African-American,” a term that, if correctly applied, is only true of people who were born in the United States and have at least one parent that was born on the continent of Africa. Whenever a label gets negative overtones attached to it, we must rush to find a new label.

Back in Biblical times, people who had mobility impairments were called “crippled.” Try to use that word today and you’ll find yourself in a heap of trouble. “Disability” is the label of choice now, but the overtones of that word are starting to pile up, to the point where some silly alternatives are being proposed. I heard a TV announcer recently refer to “people of different abilities.” It’s all a search for an acceptable label.

As for disabled people, the battle is for acceptance, just like any other minority of the population. While I am politically conservative and generally don’t like government intrusion, I was glad when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. It had to be passed because not enough businesses were making reasonable accommodations for disabled people. My wife has cerebral palsy, a birth injury where oxygen is restricted or cut off in the birthing process, resulting in a varying loss of motor skills. In AnJanette’s case, there is almost no function in her legs and she uses a wheelchair to get around. I have low vision, which means that I can see, but at a fraction of the range of others. My vision is 20/200, which means that what an average person can see from 200 feet away, I can only be 20 feet away to see the same thing. (I’m also extremely light-sensitive, and wear sunglasses pretty much all the time when outdoors, unless it’s raining.) With our situations, neither of us can operate an automobile. Charlotte has a robust enough mass transit system that we generally can get where we need to go, although it takes longer. We both come from families that taught us to never use a disability as an excuse for not doing your best, that you can go as far in life as anyone else if you work hard. For me, an unintended consequence of that is that I became extremely prideful, determined to meet every challenge entirely on my own. I am loathe to ask for help, even when I desperately need it (more on that in a minute). I’d sooner shove ice picks under my toenails. I also often reject offers for help as an attack on my abilities and intelligence. Not only is it part of the way my thinking developed, it’s also a response to stereotypes.

Stereotypes – yes, the wife and I know all about them. I wonder why it is that so many people, when they encounter someone different from them, automatically assume they are dumb? A few years back, when we were fighting our homeowners association to fix the water pipe leak from the condo above ours, they sent a general contractor out. When he saw AnJanette in a wheelchair, he assumed she was dumb, and told her the gigantic mold and water spots in the ceiling of our kitchen was the result of a leak from our water heater, which was on the ground 10 feet away. He wanted her to sign a statement agreeing to that, and asked her if she knew how to sign her name. I encountered similar prejudice growing up. Just because I had no pigment in my skin and couldn’t see like everyone else, most assumed I was dumb. In 6th grade, when I spent the entire year on the honor roll, you couldn’t believe the number of dragging jaws. So I’m probably still in defense mode all these years later, expecting people to assume I can’t handle things. In reality, most of the time it’s just good-hearted people trying to be kind.

Getting back to the minority aspect… From a business perspective, I know there normally aren’t malicious intentions, but that businesses set themselves up in a way to efficiently meet the needs of the majority of their customers. Sometimes that leaves disabled people unable to access what they offer. That’s why the ADA was necessary. I saw it today. A co-worker is about to have a baby. We went to a nearby restaurant to have a baby shower for her. I had never been to this establishment before. I saw the menu was handwritten on chalkboards about 10 feet up in the air. I had absolutely no chance of being able to read it. I went looking for a paper menu. I found one that was just the coffee menu, and one that was just a salad menu. At that point, I had had enough, and went to the seating area and joined my teammates. One of our group’s supervisors eventually approached me and asked if I needed help placing an order, that when placing her order it occurred to her that I probably couldn’t see the menu. I thanked her for thinking of me but refused the help, on the grounds that this establishment was making it too difficult to a visually impaired person to order anything, and I would just enjoy the shower with my teammates and get some food from the office cafeteria later.

Should have I accepted the help? Of course I should have. At the very least, I should have looked the place up online this morning to see if I could view the menu that way and then been ready to order when I arrived. I also felt there was a principle to defend. People of limited sight shouldn’t have to work harder to order food then those of normal sight. This is one reason you won’t find me in fast food restaurants very often. I know what food the big chains offer, but standing at the register, I can’t tell if the meal I want is combo #1, or #5, or #47. And the kids working the register can’t tell either. You say you want a spicy chicken sandwich combo, first thing that kid is going to do is turn around and look at the overhead menu, find your combo and ask, “do you mean a #3?” Combo #3 could be barbequed cactus with a side of snow tires for all I know. I’ll just say, “yeah,” never wanting to engage in debate over lunch.

What does all this mean? Well, I mainly hope to cause you to think about your daily interactions, and if you see anything that can be a barrier to others, see if you can make adjustments. (That, and hopefully the way I tell these stories is at least a little amusing.) We all can get pretty wrapped up in the world immediately surrounding us, and there may be some great gift, excellent experience or great opportunity to serve others right outside that scope, and you would be sorry you missed it.

Oh, and pray for me to be more humble before God has to do it…..