People First: Empowering People with Disabilities

Today, bloggers are uniting to raise awareness about empowering people with disabilities.

After my stroke, I was in a manual wheelchair for months. I wasn’t strong enough to maneuver the wheelchair myself so I hired someone to drive me and push my wheelchair. People always seemed to be uncomfortable around me. Often they spoke to my helper and ignored me. They looked at me with pity, but most of the time, everyone I came in contact with went out of their way to help me—rushing to open the door or make room in the elevator.

Then I got a motorized scooter and no longer needed an assistant.  Instead of looking at me with pity, people talked and joked with me: “How fast does that thing go?” “Been in any races lately?” “Hey, don’t run me down!”

Suddenly, I was a person again—no longer an object of pity. Although some individuals still seemed unsure how to act around me, most people treated me the same as they would as if I had been walking on my own two feet. They didn’t see me as totally helpless like they did when I was in a wheelchair pushed by someone else.

I hadn’t changed, but people’s perception had. When I was dependent on someone else to help me, people looked away and ignored me. When I could get around on my own—because of the power of the assistive device I was using, not because of any change in my own physical ability—people treated me as an independent human being.

I was blessed that the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect around the time I was going out into the world as a disabled person for the first time. I seldom had any trouble finding a parking spot—people who had been disabled for a long time apparently weren’t getting out yet because they hadn’t discovered that they had opportunities they didn’t have before. Sometimes, though, able-bodied people didn’t seem to understand why the best parking spaces were marked with a wheelchair icon. One time, I went to a movie with family members. Every handicapped spot was taken. We had to wait until the previous showing ended before a bunch of teenagers ran out to the cars with handicapped license plates and drove off.

On one occasion, I was visiting a client of my interior landscape company and needed help opening a heavy door.  The building manager looked at me on the scooter and said, “If I had to get around like that, I’d never go anywhere.”

I responded, “I’m not going to stay home, just lying around feeling sorry for myself.”

She obviously realized I was offended and hastened to explain that she meant it as a compliment. She thought I was very brave for facing the world from the seat of a moving chair. I told her no one knows how they would respond in a given situation until they have experienced it. We all have to make decisions every day as to whether we will let our circumstances get us down or do all we can in spite of whatever circumstances we face.

Many bloggers today will be posting about the need for government action on disability rights or about the importance of social agencies providing services to the disabled. My approach is a little different. I want to emphasize how disabled individuals can empower themselves and how the ordinary people they come in contact with—you and me—can empower them.

None of us can completely control our circumstances. We can do some things: Driving safely and soberly can reduce the chances we’ll be in an accident that disables us, and eating right and exercising will lessen the risk of disability caused by lifestyle diseases. However, regardless of what we do or don’t do, we can still find ourselves in less-than-desirable situations.

If you are disabled, don’t let your disability define you.

  • Take advantage of every opportunity you have to participate in the activities you enjoy, even if that means some people will look at you with pity and others will suggest you don’t belong. Understand that every morning you have a choice: Lie in bed feeling sorry for yourself or do all you can to participate in life, whether that’s going out into the world or using assistive devices to get online.
  • Be thankful for what you have rather than focusing on what you don’t have. If you are in the United States today, you have incredibly more opportunities to participate in activities of all kinds than were available 20 years ago. No, the situation isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely improving.
  • Educate others about how they can help. Most people would be glad to help, but they don’t know how. Individuals who don’t have personal experience with disability (their own or a loved one’s) usually don’t understand the challenges you face. Often they will appreciate your pointing out that it’s difficult for you to see what’s happening when you’re in a wheelchair and everyone else is standing up or that the aisle that seems plenty wide to them is obstructed for someone in a scooter. Sometimes just a smile and a hello from you will make another person more comfortable around you.
  • Remember that you are God’s precious creation. He loves you, and He will help you handle pain, fear, and rejection. Call on Him for strength when you don’t have any of your own.

If you are a healthy, able-bodied individual, recognize those who aren’t as fortunate.

  • Treat everyone you meet with respect and courtesy. That person in the wheelchair or with the guide dog or acting strangely because of mental illness is a human being with emotions just like yours. Don’t  ignore them or look at them with pity. Realize that disabilities come in all shapes and sizes—and not all are visible. 
  • Provide assistance, if appropriate, without condescension. Open a door for someone in a wheelchair, just as you would hold the door for a person carrying a heavy load. If someone seems to be struggling, ask if you can help them, but don’t be surprised or offended if they prefer to do it themselves. If they need help and you’re not sure what to do, ask how you can best assist them.
  • Don’t pre-empt handicap facilities. Leave the handicap parking space for someone who needs it, even if you’re driving your grandmother’s car with handicapped license plates. Leave the handicap stall empty in the restroom even if you have to wait for a minute.
  • Advocate for the disabled. That doesn’t mean you have to become politically active and try to get laws passed. But if you’re in a business and notice that the trash can is blocking wheelchair access into the restroom, notify the manager. If you have input into hiring where you work, ensure that a qualified applicant isn’t turned away because reasonable accommodation is required. If you see someone parking in a handicap space who is obviously not handicapped, politely remind them that disabled people really need the space. Of course, you must be careful about this—someone can have a heart condition that limits their walking ability but that isn’t visible to the casual observer. However, if you see a teenager run across the parking lot to join her friend, she probably doesn’t need to be taking up a handicap parking space.

Let’s all look at people with disabilities as people first.

Do you have other suggestions for how those who are handicapped and those they encounter can empower people with disabilities? Please share in comments.

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