Friday, February 25, 2011

People with Disabilities

I recently made the acquaintance of a writer who asked if I had ever discussed the dynamics of interacting with persons with disability. This person has a debilitating disease which requires a wheelchair or crutches to get around. Being an advocate for people with disabilities, she had some interesting observations which I'd like to share.

The most important thing to remember about people with any disability is that they are far more aware of their situation and how to adjust to it than we realize. Guessing if a person needs our help or even how to help is probably not a good idea. If they need our help, they will ask for it in most cases. Interfering with their navigational skills may actually impede their abilities further rather than be of help. Therefore, don't make assumptions based on your perspective as a person about another person's particular challenge.

One observation is that just because someone is in a wheelchair does not mean they are hard of hearing or unable to understand a normal conversation. This woman observed that people tend to both raise their voices and speak more slowly and deliberately to people with obvious mobility issues. This is insulting and embarrassing and results in an awkward situation. She shares, "Depending on my mood, I may respond in kind. On occasion my companion may seek out the nearest hole to crawl into. Invariably they come away from the situation with a heightened awareness of just what it's like to be me on a day to day basis."

Another behavior which this woman observed at several restaurants is the decision by wait staff to inquire of the companion of the person with a disability what the disabled individual would like to eat, drink,etc. He or she is perfectly capable of speaking for themselves as well as making any other decisions as they arise. This illustrates how unsure we are of how to relate to people who appear needy.

She went to on to tell me a story. She and a friend had managed to get two seats in a crowded bar. There were only two vacant seats next to them available when two men approached and asked if they could join them. They were delighted for the company and welcomed them. Little did the gentlemen know that the two had decided to conduct a social experiment and for the evening decided to swap roles. A pair of crutches was leaning against the wall. When the men asked who the crutches belonged to, the women explained that Jane, who was seated closest to the walking aids lived with a particular neurological disease which presents some balance issues. The men almost immediately shifted their attention to Sarah who appeared not to have a disability, virtually ignoring Jane. To me this illustrates how little we are taught about people with different abilities than our own. Jane and Sarah did eventually explain their little experiment to disclose that it was, in fact, Sarah and not Jane who used the crutches. From there a fascinating and enlightening discussion ensued.

She goes on to explain, "What's lost on society at large is one critical thing - all of us are "dis'abled; it's simply a matter of degree, and how visible that disability is and how those who are not visibility disabled respond to it. Slowly architectural barriers are being broken down though many still exist - it's well and good to have a wheelchair user parking space, but what's the point if the interior of the building is not accessible (a restaurant with no wheelchair seating - a common problem in fast food establishments) or the bathroom has no properly accessible wheelchair stall (grab bars, etc). I laugh when I visit bathrooms that fail the wheelchair friendly designation - sure, they have the the toilet with grab bar, but toilet paper is out of reach, the cut away sink gets a pass, but the soap dispenser and the hand dryer are out of reach, or the mirror is positioned for a standing person."

As with any other social skill we develop, learning how to appropriately relate to people who have any disabilities or other challenges is a matter of practice. Taking the time to learn these skills raises our awareness of a variety of difficulties many of us face. Showing compassion to those who have such challenges is important and a polite and civil way to behave. Having compassion for ourselves when faced with new challenges is usually more difficult for us. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Some are more visible than others; however, they should all be handled with respect.It is up to us to recognize each human being as an individual and to treat each person with dignity and kindness.