What is “disabled?” What images come to your mind?
I think it’s mostly a label. America is constantly looking for ways to label people and things. People with dark skin were called “Negro,” which became offensive. “Black” was the new term. Soon enough, Jesse Jackson got offended by that word and demanded we use “African-American.” (NOTE: technically, this 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.)
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.
The battle for acceptance
As for disabled people, the battle is for acceptance, just like any other minority of the population. While I generally don’t like government intrusion, I was glad when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. It was needed because businesses were not 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. The result is a varying loss of motor skills. In AnJanette’s case, there is little leg function and she uses a wheelchair. I have low vision, which means that I see a fraction of what others see. My vision is 20/200. This means I must be within 20 feet to see what others can see at 200 feet. I’m also extremely light-sensitive. I wear sunglasses all the time when outdoors.
With our situations, neither of us can operate an automobile. Charlotte enough mass transit that we can get where we need to go, It just takes longer than driving. We both come from families that taught us to never use a disability as an excuse for not doing your best. 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. I’m determined to meet every challenge entirely on my own. I am loathe to ask for help, even when I desperately need it. I’d sooner shove ice picks under my toenails. I also 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.
Yes, we know all about them. Why it is that when people they encounter someone different, they often assume they are stupid? I encountered this growing up. I had no pigment in my skin and couldn’t see like everyone else, so most assumed I was stupid. In 6th grade, 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. I expect people to assume I can’t handle things. In reality, it’s usually good-hearted people trying to be kind.
A few years back, 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 stupid. He told her the mold and water spots on our ceiling were from a leak from our water heater. It was on the ground 10 feet away. He wanted her to sign a statement agreeing to that. “Do you know how to sign your name?” (Obviously she refused, since he lied about the cause and insulted her intelligence.)
From a business perspective, I know 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.
Trying to order lunch
An example from my corporate days: A co-worker was 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. The menu was handwritten on chalkboards about 10 feet up in the air. There was no chance of me being able to read it. I went looking for a paper menu. I found a coffee menu and a salad menu. I’ve had enough, I thought. I went to the seating area and joined my teammates. One of our group’s supervisors asked if I needed help placing an order. It occurred to her that I probably couldn’t see the menu. I thanked her for thinking of me but refused the help. This establishment was making it too difficult for a visually impaired person to order anything. I would just enjoy the shower with my teammates and go to the office cafeteria later.
Should have I accepted the help? Of course I should have. I could have looked online that morning to see if I could view the menu. then I’d be 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 anyone else. This is one reason you won’t find me in fast food restaurants very often. I know what’s available, but I can’t see if what 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, the kid is going to look at the overhead menu. He’ll 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. If you see anything that can be a barrier to others, see if you can make adjustments. (That, and hopefully my tales are at least a little amusing.) We all can get wrapped up in the world immediately surrounding us. There may be some great gift, excellent experience or great opportunity to serve others right outside that scope. Don’t end up sorry that you missed it.
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