Sunday, June 20, 1999

Disability doesn't define person

Assumptions can be unfair to individuals

Enquirer contributor

        I was waiting through a second light cycle, as I often do, at a busy downtown intersection, when a young woman offered the information that it was clear to cross the street.

        I thanked her, crossed the street, and when she continued walking my way, explained that when you're blind, it is sometimes affirming to listen through two cycles of heavy traffic before crossing the street.

        We were new friends traveling a couple of blocks together then. I learned that she is from Romania, has an interesting job with a large downtown company and had approached me cautiously because of a previous experience with another blind person.

        “Thank you so much for accepting my help,” she said. “Another time, my offer made someone angry.”

        I told her what I often say, perhaps too glibly, about the nature of my 50-plus million American peers with disabilities: Because disability can happen to anyone, people with disabilities tend to run the gamut of personality types. We come in all temperaments — angry, accepting, generous, self-centered, passive, exuberant, friendly, and, sometimes, rude.

        I was poignantly reminded of the truth in that assessment while reading about Edgar Rivera, a 46-year-old Manhattan messenger who lost his legs six weeks ago after being pushed off a subway platform by a stranger.

        Mr. Rivera, who was on the way home from work to his wife and two children, says he is not angry. He can only feel sorry, he says, for someone “who has such a sad life,” that he would try to push a stranger to his death in the face of an oncoming train.

        It is a blessing that he has virtually no recollection of the incident, he said from his wheelchair in the hospital room where he faces weeks of physical rehabilitation.

        Julio Perez, the man bystanders restrained until police arrived, had been harassing travelers on the platform when one of them told him to go away. He reportedly then punched a wall and moments later pushed Mr. Rivera onto the tracks.

        Mr. Perez told police he had a history of mental illness. Lots of people have mental disabilities, but they don't go around pushing people in front of trains.

        And lots of people have physical disabilities, and they aren't all as forgiving as Mr. Rivera when the onset of that disability should never have occurred.

        Our biases and assumptions run deep, and can be rooted in minutia. My young daughter was surprised that a new friend was white because, she said, the only other person she'd known with that name was African-American. My neighbor told me not to give the new kitten the name I was considering, because she'd known a terrible person with that name.

        Our assumptions about people with disabilities work in a similar way. Just because your deaf roommate in college communicated in sign language doesn't mean that your new deaf boss will.

        Disability is, fortunately or not, just one element of who a person will become. Whether it plays a minor role or a major one depends on a tremendous variety of other traits.

        Some people with disabilities are brilliant; some are bigots. Some have significant disabilities that they handle as minor inconveniences, while others have minor disabilities that they position center stage for a lifetime.

        And some, like Edgar Rivera, have a depth of tolerance that could serve as an example for all of us.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. E-mail or write c/o Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202.