By Kelly L. Sydow
About two years ago, I was just another lost soul with empty pockets, scouring the newspaper for any hope of possible employment. I had no direction in school and no idea for a career. After weeks of countless interviews and submitting applications with no responses, I came across the following ad:
“Do you enjoy helping people? Do you want to make a difference in your community? Then apply at OpenDoor Services, an adult day program servicing the developmentally disabled adults of San Joaquin County.
“You can make a difference.”
I had never worked with disabled people before. It sounded challenging and interesting. I was at a crossroads in my life, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Within a week, I got the job. Within two months I changed my major to sociology, and within a year and a half, I found a new job that offered more responsibility and opportunities but still focused on working with adults with disabilities. Amazingly, I found my niche. I found a job I love. I now work as a Community Support Coordinator, providing supported living services to many of the developmentally disabled adults in the San Joaquin County.
Working with disabled adults has taught me a variety of things. I have learned to truly value my life, to avoid taking things for granted, and perhaps most important, that all people–just because they may not look like the rest of us or act like the rest of us–have extraordinary potential. I have seen people with manic depression rise to the occasion to support their family, I have seen a team of adults with varying physical and mental disabilities take home gold medals from the Special Olympics, and I have seen abused, violent and misguided individuals learn compassion, understanding, and the value of friendship. Yet I have also seen an ugly side: the way many members of the general public treat people with disabilities.
It is important to understand the immense presence of people with disabilities. It is quite possible the average person will meet people with disabilities and not even know it; after all, not all disabilities are physical. Mental disabilities can include a wide variety of possible factors, from learning problems, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or varying degrees of intellectual disabilities . . . there are hundreds, if not thousands. The US Census 2000 reported that nearly 49 million people over the age of five in the United States have disabilities (Stern). That translates to just under 20% or one in five. So the odds of an average American encountering a person with disabilities is fairly high.
“There is a tendency to patronize people with disabilities; you can either be treated like a child or like an idiot,” Lawrence Carter-Long, Network Coordinator for the Disabilities Network of New York City, stated in an interview with Penn & Teller (“Handicapped Parking”). Carter-Long suffers from cerebral palsy and knows firsthand the struggles people with disabilities face on a daily basis. In a world that already poses many environmental challenges, why would anyone want to demean or insult people with disabilities in regular human interaction? For example, in New York City, there are nearly 13,000 cabs for a city with nearly 20 million people, yet only 29 of those cabs are handicap accessible (“Handicapped Parking”). If we take the Census’ conclusion of one in five people having disabilities, we can accurately suggest that while NYC has roughly four million people with varying degrees of disabilities, the city has only 29 cabs accessible to those with physical limitations. That’s just one example of the many communicational, environmental, and physical barriers that people with disabilities already struggle with. Carol Eustice cites other experiences that people with disabilities may miss out on, including competitive sports, road trips, rough-housing with their children, and traveling. If I could make people’s lives a little easier or a little more pleasant just by being nice to them, why wouldn’t I? It’s a fact: People with disabilities struggle in a world designed for able-bodied people.
People with disabilities have more than physical and environmental barriers to deal with. A recent government study–the first of its kind–revealed that “people with disabilities are 50 percent more likely to be the victims of violent crimes” (Frieden). The same study reported that strangers victimized 24% of non-disabled women, but that number jumped to 34% for their disabled counterparts. The study did not discuss the “why” factor, but it would be obvious to most. I see this even in the work I do. People with disabilities face a constant battle in being taken advantage of, sadly even by people they trust. I’ve heard many stories about people with disabilities having money, jewelry, or other personal items taken from them by people who provide them with various services.
Though less severe, another form of mistreatment among those with disabilities has much more of an immediate impact. This is the use of the malicious label “retard” and other terms to describe people with disabilities. It can happen anywhere: on bus rides, in line at the grocery store and in restaurants. What I am talking about is not just confined to a word but to a number of things that I know people with disabilities have found offensive. This includes mocking people with disabilities, talking in a “baby voice,” or talking to them as if they cannot understand basic concepts or forms of communication, such as the retail salesperson who asks a DD adult, “Hiiiiii there. Can . . . I . . . HELP . . . you?”
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel recently found himself in hot water after using the derogatory phrase “f-ing retarded” to describe liberal activists in a closed-door strategy session in 2009. The controversy resulted in his public apology to Tim Shriver, head of the Special Olympics and advocate for all people with disabilities. Not even two months later, on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, President Obama laughed that his poor bowling score was “like Special Olympics, or something” (“Emanuel Meets with Shriver After ‘F-ing Retarded’ Comment”). It is this kind of language and behavior that sets back our progress towards achieving equality and respect for people with disabilities. To hear this kind of speech from two people so highly regarded is disappointing.
When I was an instructor at OpenDoors, I was responsible for taking a group of three to four adults at a time out in public for various activities. We would go to the library, compare prices at stores, and participate in sporting events through the Special Olympics. One time we were at a local Burger King. My group of adults, all men at the time, got in line with me, and I assisted the ones who needed help ordering off the menu. A tall man with his two small children stood behind us, growing increasingly frustrated at the length of time it took for my group to order. As my group and I walked away, I heard him say to the cashier, “I bet it pisses you off getting a bunch of slow retards in here!” I bit my tongue, but sat down with my guys, waiting for our food. As we ate our lunch, the same man sat in disgust across the room, eyeing us every few moments. He eventually had the audacity to approach our table and say, “You know, I bring my kids here for a nice fun lunch, and first I have to wait for all five of you to make a simple order, then I have to watch them eat like this . . . .” He motioned to Michael, a forty-something with Down syndrome. People with Down syndrome are some of the most lively, compassionate people I’ve ever met, but characteristically they have a large, protruding tongue, which affects the way they eat. Even I had to get used to it at first. The man looked at me and continued, “Can’t you just take your retards out of here and go outside?”
It sounds like something the average person would never dare to say. However, this is an accurate representation of the many vulgar things people with disabilities inevitably hear. Michael looked at the man and offered the most sincere apology as he packed his lunch. I told him to stop packing up and told the man that these people, these human beings, had as much right to eat here as he did, and we would not be going anywhere. He took his kids and left.
One would imagine an argument against treating people with disabilities as equals would be non-existent. In fact, finding research about people who will openly discuss their opposition to treating people with disabilities as equals, as I have found, is incredibly difficult. Discrimination, intolerance, and ignorant disrespect are all silent problems that infiltrate our society. All I can do to stop them is to explain what I have heard and seen.
Other misconceptions seem to foster these problems of discrimination, intolerance, and disrespect. These are a few of the common myths that continue to exist today.
“I don’t know any people with disabilities.” It doesn’t matter. As stated previously, with nearly 20% of all Americans falling under the “disabled” category, chances are most people will know people with disabilities. And if one does not know people with disabilities, what harm is there in educating oneself about the proper way to treat people with disabilities? We should educate ourselves and our children, encouraging all to have tolerance and respect for all people.
“People with disabilities are less productive members of society and are therefore not equals.” Au contraire! Some of history’s most notable and productive figures have had disabilities. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legs were paralyzed from polio, Harriet Tubman had epilepsy, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, both blind, became extremely talented musicians. Famous aviator Howard Hughes and naturalist Charles Darwin both had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Albert Einstein, believe it or not, had a learning disability (“Famous People with Disabilities”)! To demean people by suggesting they are not capable of doing great things because of a disability is ignorant.
And then there is the played-out argument: “Why does everyone think just because people have disabilities, we have to go out of our way to treat them ‘extra’ special?” Nobody has to bend over backward for a disabled person. If that is the assumption one draws from reading this, then my point is being overlooked. It is about treating people as human beings with feelings. Oftentimes, treating someone “special” because he/she has a disability just makes the disability that much more obvious, and can be misconstrued as patronizing.
It does not take a lot to learn the right way to address, treat and assist those with disabilities. In the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), a section entitled “Communicating With and About People with Disabilities” offers insightful tips, phrases, and guidelines for communicating and interacting with people with disabilities. The introduction makes a powerful and true statement: “Individuals are sometimes concerned that they will say the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all–thus further segregating people with disabilities.” The page suggests discarding group designations, such as “the blind”, “the retarded” or “the disabled,” as they do not “reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people with disabilities. Further, words like ‘normal person’ imply that the person with a disability isn’t normal, whereas ‘person without a disability’ is descriptive but not negative” (“Communicating With and About People with Disabilities”).
This helpful site goes on to provide the reader with an in-depth chart that focuses on affirmative phrases as opposed to negative phrases, such as saying “person with Cerebral Palsy” versus “CP victim.” It further suggests appropriate phrases and actions and discusses what is okay in regards to communicating with people of various sectors (i.e. deaf, physically disabled, blind, etc.). Rather than listing off the 60 or so tips, I have selected what I believe to be the most universal.
All etiquette involving communicating and interacting with people with disabilities revolves around respect and courtesy. There is no handbook for this, no need to memorize a list of what-to-dos for any possible situation. The right way to treat people with disabilities is to treat them the way all people would want to be treated. (Remember the Golden Rule?) When addressing a person with a disability, keep these in mind: Always look people in the eye when speaking to them. Staring is different; it’s rude. But looking away as to not draw attention to an obvious physical disability actually makes it more obvious. A normal tone of voice is acceptable and expected. “If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Be patient, supportive and flexible. Take the time to make sure you understand the person and equally as important, that he/she understands you.” Perhaps the most helpful information ODEP offers is to simply relax, listen to the individual, offer but never insist, and treat the individual with dignity, respect and courtesy (“Communicating With and About People with Disabilities”).
The scary but true reality is that any person could become disabled at any time. Many mental disabilities occur later in life, and no one knows when he/she will fall down a stair, get in a car accident, or have a baby with a genetic disorder. Of course, I would never wish any of that upon anyone, but the point is to know that it’s possible. “If I were a person with a disability, how would I expect others to treat me?” Change arises with education, awareness and support. We need to be educated in the right way to be tolerant, respectful and courteous to those with disabilities, and we need to pass these lessons along to our future generations. We need to be aware that people with disabilities are treated unfairly and subjected to demeaning comments every day, and when we see it happen we need to stand up and set the example for the right way. And last, we need to show our support to people with disabilities by embracing them as productive and contributing members of our society.
People with disabilities make up nearly 20% of the US population, a number that has been steady over the years (Stern). Now more than ever, it is time for everyone to come together and promote equality and the fair treatment of people with disabilities. In my experience, seeing people with disabilities being mistreated or becoming the victims of words with heavy negative connotations does really affect them. It chips away at their self-esteem. Who is anyone to make other human beings question their importance, their place in this world or even their status as “normal”? What is normal? I would highly encourage anyone to spend a day volunteering at a Special Olympics, blind center or disabled adult day program. In doing so, one would see what I am so fortunate to observe every day; people with the kindest hearts overcoming amazing obstacles and offering friendship to nearly anyone who is willing take it. When people are able to have had that experience and see the receptiveness that occurs when people with disabilities are treated no different than anyone else in the world, I would expect them to wonder, “how could anyone ever treat people with disabilities any differently?”
“Communicating With and About People with Disabilities.” United States Department of Labor. 25 March 2010. <http://www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/fact/comucate.htm >.
“Emanuel Meets with Shriver After ‘F-ing Retarded‘ Comment.” Fox News Website. 03 February 2010. Web. 26 March 2010. <http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/02/03/emanuel-meets-shriver-f-ing-retard-comment/>.
Eustice, Carol. “People with Disabilities–Living in a ‘Normal’ World: Overcoming Annoyances.” About.com. 22 March 2010. <http://arthritis.about.com/od/inthehomedailyliving/a/disabledliving.htm >.
“Famous People with Disabilities.” Disabled World: Disability and Health News. 18 July 2006. Web. 24 March 2010. <http://www.disabled-world.com/artman/publish/article_0060.shtml>.
Frieden, Terry. “Study: Disabled more likely to be victims of violent crime.” CNN.Â March 22, 2010. <http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/10/02/crimes.disabled/index.html >.
“Handicapped Parking.” Penn & Teller: Bullshit! By Randall Moldave and Eric Small. Perf. Penn and Teller. Showtime. 3 May 2007.
Stern, Sharon. “Counting People with Disabilities: How Survey Methodology Influences Estimates in Census 200 and the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey.” Web. 23 March 2010. <http://www.census.gov/acs/www/Downloads/ACS/finalstern.pdf >.