People in our society have absolutely no clue how to treat a disabled person.
The one year anniversary of quitting my job and journeying into “gimp land” is fast approaching. In this last year, I have learned a lot about what it’s like to be a disabled person in a society of able-bodied people. From the big things (Always have a walking buddy if you go anywhere, in case your body decides “This is a good time to stop working.”) to the little things (Never wear laced shoes in public. Try to tie your shoes without bending your knees and you will understand this.), there are a million and one things that you have to know as a disabled person that no one can teach you. It’s like a toddler learning to walk: it can only be learned through experience (although it’s far less “crawling before walking,” and more “falling before limping.”) Unfortunately, for every lesson I learn about myself during this transition, I learn two about other people. Most of these lessons can be generalized to “People suck.”
There is a school of thought that surfaced in my generation (20-30 year olds) stressing that handicapped people are exactly the same as able-bodied people. The Special Olympics, “handi-capable” groups and seminars that teach “Bob in Accounting is just like you despite missing his legs,” all tell us that we should always treat disabled people as equals. A lot of these groups insist that offering any courtesy to a disabled person that you wouldn’t offer to an able-bodied person is, at best, ignorant; at worst, it is an insulting display of discrimination. Thanks to many of these groups, we who are disabled enjoy the freedom and equality that our able-bodied brethren enjoy every single day. On paper this may make you want to wear American flag boxers to bed and sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” in the shower. Unfortunately, as often is the nature of these things, the world refuses to work the way it does on paper.
There is a fundamental problem with this belief: people with disabilities are not the same as able-bodied people. Heck, one disability isn’t even the same as another. Bob from Accounting needs plenty of special treatment in order for him to get through his work day; he needs elevators, ramps, a work space that is accessible from his wheelchair and co-workers who would stop putting the sugar on the top shelf in the break room. Is he less of a human because of it? Hell no, (Unless you measure humanity by mass, in which case the answer is “Hell yes.” Also, “Seek help.”) but you can’t treat him like any other coworker, because he isn’t like any of your other coworkers.
Here’s a personal example: I went to Taco Bell by myself on the way to a doctor’s appointment recently. When my number was called, I walked to the counter (using my cane to steady myself, as I often do) and proceeded to awkwardly try to balance the tray in my free hand. After several minutes of mastering this hilarious circus act, I slowly made my way to the soda fountain and filled my drink up before realizing I now had two things to balance in my one hand. Luckily, an incredibly helpful man walked over and carried my tray for me (thankfully avoiding the “grandpa” jokes I always hear so often) and I enjoyed my bean paste wrapped in tortilla-like paper.
What’s the point of that story? The entire time this was going on, there were two perfectly healthy, able-bodied people behind the counter watching me; there was no line and no one else to help. They just stood there and stared awkwardly as I fumbled my way across the room without ever asking if I needed help. It’s entirely possible (and likely) that their decision to not help me was more driven by laziness than the desire to be seen as an equal opportunity establishment, but their defense if pressed would’ve absolutely been that I had not asked for assistance and therefore could handle myself. I ran into this at my last job: we were taught to never offer help to someone with a disability unless they asked for it first. The problem with this logic is that asking for help when you are disabled is really freaking hard. Being disabled already makes you feel like a giant cancerous burden on your friends and family, no one in their right mind wants to add “random people” to that list.
The point is, we aren’t all on equal footing when it comes to everyday tasks. Some of us are at a disadvantage and need that extra bit to get us through the day. So please, the next time you see a guy standing on a bus with a cane, give him your seat. You never know if he could be an internet blogger, and I know I’d much rather be remembered as an insultingly helpful person than an ass who is too politically correct to lend a hand.
If you’re so helpful it hurts, or you think I’m a giant tool, please post a comment!
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I’m so sorry for the ignorance of our generation. I think some people don’t know how to offer help, so they stare awkwardly.
One of the worst examples of this I’ve witnessed myself happened back in NY at the dental office where I was working. An elderly patient came in who was blind and asked for someone to show him to the bathroom. I had just happened to walk up to the front with my patient in time to see my manager telling the new girl to help him.. She awkwardly took his hand and proceded to lead him into the pillar because she was paying more attention to who might be watching than to the man she was supposed to help. When she opened the door for him, she said, “here, let me get the light for you,” to which he humorously replied, “I don’t need it. I’m blind!” She was embarrassed and started to walk away… Leaving the door open! My manager told her to go back and close it.
After I checked my patient out I waited for the man to come out of the restroom so I could escort him back to his seat. He was a long-time patient and had a great sense of humor, so he wasn’t angry, but what’s right or wrong treatment of someone shouldn’t be determined by their reaction.
Long story short, I get it.