So many people act awkward when they encounter individuals with obvious disabilities. Because my job largely involves putting young people with disabilities out into the community to work and try to help teach them how to hold down a job, and sometimes, to fit in to society, I am hyper-aware of this. I have also spent over twenty years immersed in the world of the disabled and have observed and thought about this situation a great deal. I remember a very specific incident that happened when my children were young which really opened my eyes to the problem.
When you have toddlers in the house, it seems like somebody is always sick. I had four children, so our trips to the doctor’s office were frequent. My two older children are several years older than the younger two, so, when I would take the younger girls in to see the doctor, the older children would wait in the waiting room while we were in the examination room. Then one day, I took a deaf child along with us. The child was the same age as my older kids, and, as usual, I picked up the baby and started toward the examination room, only this time the nurse went into the waiting room and made the three older children join me in the examination room. She was clearly uncomfortable around the deaf youngster, even though he had excellent communication skills. It was interesting to watch. That was the only time the two older kids ever had to accompany me into the examination room.
I have thought long and hard about this situation, and have a wishlist of what I would change if I could:
First, we would stop categorizing people as anything other than people. I mean, when you encounter someone with a disability, stop yourself from thinking of that individual in terms of a person with a disability and think about him or her as a person. Period.
Second, treat everyone the same. Make it a habit to talk to everyone the same. Address the individual, not the people who are with him/her. Look at them. Look at their faces, their eyes. They are people. They have hopes and dreams, heartaches and joys just like you and I. Don’t stare, but don’t awkwardly look away. I think the more this is practiced, the more natural it becomes and you train yourself to start seeing people and not disabilities.
Third, don’t baby talk or talk down to them. Don’t turn them into pets or patronize them. When I am working with people trying to teach them how to hold down jobs it doesn’t help if everyone around them tiptoes around their disability. We empower people when we work to figure out why they make mistakes or struggle with certain aspects of a job and try to help them figure out how to overcome their barriers. If we just pick up the slack and do the work for them - we make them dependent, turn them into tokens, and strip them of their humanity. They shouldn’t get privileges or extra special care because they have disabilities, neither should they be discriminated against. We just need to be logical and practical and try to support independence as much as possible. Treat them like you would anyone else.
Fourth, don’t yell at deaf people. It’s only the deafness that comes with old age and too many rock concerts that can sortof be overcome when we yell. If someone is just plain old deaf, and relies to any extent on lipreading when you or I yell at them it distorts our faces and makes it even more difficult to read lips. Consider the fact the best lip readers only understand about 30% of what is said when it is spoken in a conversational tone - yelling brings that down considerably and draws a lot of unwanted attention, too. Writing is a better option. You have a cell phone - type a note! Technology has opened up the world of communication for deaf individuals.
Fifth, don’t let pity rule the day. Sometimes we pity children, teens, or even an adults who have disabilities - and we excuse their behavior because we feel sorry for them and the challenges they face. Don’t do that. Rudeness is unacceptable no matter who the person is. Don’t assume they cannot learn, or that they are even aware they are being rude. It’s okay to say if something hurts your feelings or if their behavior is unacceptable. Better to be told than to go through life making enemies. Natural consequences are great teachers.
Sixth, give them a chance. Don’t assume they can or can’t do anything - ask! I think often you will be surprised at how many abilities they actually have, and how hard they are willing to work to overcome obstacles.
Seventh - Again, remember they are PEOPLE first. People. First.