March is Disabilities Awareness Month!
Ever since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which made it illegal to discriminate against individuals with disabilities with regards to employment, education, transportation, and public services, inclusion of people with disabilities has become more commonplace. Public spaces are now legally required to be handicapped accessible, education has changed to meet the needs of those with disabilities, and other accommodations are made to give greater access to people with disabilities.
The ADA did, and continues to do, great things for people with disabilities, but there is still a lot that society has to learn about these individuals and the disabilities they live with. While the ADA is over 25 years old, there are still instances of discrimination and unequal treatment. And in our day-to-day lives, we may still be unsure of how to interact with people with disabilities.
Therefore, for the past 25 years, March has been Disability Awareness Month in Indiana. This is a month to raise awareness and increase understanding about those with disabilities. This year’s campaign theme is “Inclusion is within Everyone’s Ability.” Truly, we can be a fully inclusive society with a bit of education and compassion.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22% of people in Indiana have a disability. That means that 1/5th of Indiana’s population has a disability of some sort. Therefore, with such a high probability that you will interact with someone with a disability throughout the day, it is important to know how they can be treated equally and respectfully.
First of all, what is a disability? A disability is “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” There are a variety of different kinds of disabilities that might affect someone’s mobility, sight, hearing, brain functioning, etc. Also know that disabilities may not always be visible. Someone who looks perfectly healthy might have what is called an invisible disability. As the name implies, an invisible disability is one that still deeply affects a person’s life, but is not often visible to the naked eye. Invisible disabilities include chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and many mental illnesses. Often with these illnesses, it is not obvious that the person is ill, but they in fact are.
Often it is society’s first instinct to see the disability before the person. This instinct is even reflected in the way that most people talk about those with disabilities: “She’s a wheelchair-bound woman.” “He is bipolar.” “She is schizophrenic.”
However, that’s not very fair to the person with a disability. He or she is a person first, who happens to have a disability. The disability doesn’t completely define who he or she is. This is why person-first language is important, because the person is referenced first, and then the disability: “She is a woman in a wheelchair.” “He is a man who has bipolar disorder.” “She is a woman with schizophrenia.” The disability no longer defines the person, but is simply an addition to their identity.
Disability Awareness Month is also a time to learn more about interacting with people who have a disability. Even well-meaning individuals can do or say something to a person with disabilities that is offensive or hurts their feelings. If you are ever unsure of how to treat someone with a disability, just ask them what they prefer. They will be glad to tell you their preferences in order to make both of you feel more comfortable.
Asking is always good, but there are also some behaviors to avoid in general when speaking or working with someone who has a disability.
1. Don’t help someone with a disability without asking if they want help. What you might view as being helpful and kind may be debilitating or offensive to the person with the disability.
For example, you see someone in a wheelchair pushing him- or herself uphill. You think that looks tiring, so you grab the handles of their wheelchair and push them up the hill. In fact, you may scare them by grabbing their wheelchair suddenly. They also likely view their wheelchair as an extension of their body. Would you be grateful if someone came up behind you and suddenly started pushing you up a hill? Therefore, if you think someone is struggling and needs help, ask them first. If they truly need help, they will let you know; otherwise, they will be able to handle the situation on their own.
2. Avoid using derogatory language around a person with a disability.
For example, saying that someone in a wheelchair is a “cripple” or someone who has a learning disability is a “retard” is extremely offensive. Use people-first language instead, if you need to refer to the person’s disability. Otherwise, just refer to the person as you would anyone else. For example, if you are introducing a coworker with a learning disability to a friend, say, “This is my coworker Jane. She works in the technology department.” rather than “This is my dyslexic coworker Jane.”
3. Be respectful regarding any assistive technology that a person with a disability may use. Assistive technologies might be a wheelchair, a white stick, crutches, protective sunglasses, among others.
Do not lean against or prop your foot up on a person’s wheelchair. If a person with a visual impairment uses a white stick or a cane, don’t handle it unless asked to. These technologies help individuals get around and are their personal possessions. Would you like someone to invade your personal space and mess with your things? It all comes down to the simple rule of respecting the property of others.
Overall, just try to be patient with yourself and with the person who has a disability. Treat them like anyone else as much as possible. They deserve at least that much.
We are coming out of a period in time where disabilities were feared because they were not understood, where people with disabilities were treated cruelly and given no chances to live healthy, productive lives. With legislature like the ADA, the advocacy of wonderful organizations to humanize people with disabilities, and efforts by everyone to be more inclusive, we are emerging from that dark period.