People with disabilities are as different from one another as the disabling conditions themselves. If any common denominator unites us, it is those negative attitudes born of fear and misconception.
Otherwise intelligent human beings can manage to lose all rationale in the presence of a person who is blind or deaf or in a wheelchair.
Children understand the differences easily. Blindness means your eyes don't work. Deafness means your ears don't work. You sit in a wheelchair because your legs don't work. It is all very basic.
Adults, however, have gathered a different set of interpretations.
One common reaction is that if you have one disability, you must have them all.
Like all blind people, I have had people shout at me to be understood, or ask someone with me what I want to eat, to buy, or to do.
It's funny, in a way, to be looking at dresses in a department store and hear someone ask your friend what size you wear. My impulse is to begin speaking in French or sign language, to answer for myself in the third person ("yes, she likes the red one") or to wonder aloud if I've become invisible. What I really do, of course, is simply respond, and hope the confusion will go away.
The same kind of experience is familiar to people with all sorts of disabilities. Deaf people have been offered Braille menus. A man with cerebral palsy says his balance difficulty is often labeled drunkenness.
Adults who use wheelchairs are addressed as though they were children. A woman with a learning disability is regarded as "stupid." And the list goes on.
People with disabilities are not, as another myth has it, necessarily cheerful souls. Many, however, find it much easier to meet misconceptions with a smile or a joke than to dwell on the momentary loss of dignity.
Perhaps small children accept disabled adults so readily because they expect adults to be adults. They are curious, certainly, about an adult who has something different or does something differently. But children's questions are generally straightforward: What happened to your hands, your legs, or your eyes? And they are quick to understand straightforward answers.
Adults could learn from that approach. Expect disabled people to be people. Assume that they can do anything, and when they can't, they'll tell you. If you notice a disabled person in trouble, offer assistance - as you would for a person who is not disabled. If your assistance is refused, remind yourself that no one knows better than that individual what he or she is able to do. Disability is a random event that can occur in any life at any moment.
Contact Debra Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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