According to many able-bodied adults, having a physical disability would be worse than dying. To others, because everyone is made in the image and likeness of God, disability is a sign of grace. Both of these perspectives are more than just incorrect — they’re filled with speculation and a false-understanding of the disabled condition.
There is nothing catastrophic or divine about being physically impaired. It is simply a way of life, a state of being, and to treat it as anything else does more harm than good. You see, when you demonize or idolize someone’s physical disability, you remove the person from the situation and begin to create your own assumptions about their quality of life. This act is destructive for many reasons, but the base foundation of the problem is that these assumptions form permanent social stereotypes that create a lasting negative impact on the ways in which the disabled community is treated by their peers.
One way to dissolve some of these assumptions is through discussion and understanding. Below, I have outlined a few points that I believe most people with disabilities would deem important for able-bodied individuals to fully comprehend. When reading through them, consider asking yourself how your privilege has consciously and unconsciously impacted your thoughts on the disabled community and what you can do today to change your perspective.
We have a voice; let us use it
I am missing two limbs on the left side of my body. To get around anywhere that is larger than your standard living room, I require the use of assistive devices such as electric or manual wheelchairs. When I was in middle school, I stood on one foot for the length of countless basketball games, occasionally flinging my orange and blue pom poms through the air without a care in the world. Advanced classes in high school often had a special seat with my name on it (and I passed every single one with top marks). In college, I hopped up the stairs to the choir loft every Sunday morning to participate in my favorite, faith-driven extracurricular activity.
All of these opportunities required someone other than myself to look at my very obvious physical limitations, process that they existed, and choose to ignore their inherent prejudices and instead listen to the words I was saying: “I can do it.”
Speaking for myself is one of my favorite pastimes. Standing up for accessibility injustices, telling a thoughtless teenager off for playing around on the electric wheelchairs available for use at supermarkets, outwardly complaining when a business front has a step up or a non-existent automatic door opener — these are all things that I will shout and scream about until the day I die. That said, my voice’s decibel level means absolutely nothing if the outside world is not ready to listen.
On average, my stature is two feet shorter than those I am conversing with, making it easy for my words to get lost in the crossfire of opinions and inferences taking place up above. My situation forces people to physically look down at me, but it would be nice to not be underestimated so frequently and be given the opportunity to speak for myself.
My level of disability depends on you
If this statement makes you feel even slightly guilty, that was, in fact, the intention. We know how to fly people from Zimbabwe to Amsterdam in 12 hours or less while simultaneously keeping them safe and comfortable, so how is it that there are still places not properly equipped for people with disabilities?
Though the United States holds 30 percent of the world’s total wealth, our country still manages to exclude close to 20 percent of the population from basic functions and general awareness. A nation that perpetually prides itself on its freedoms outwardly denies millions of people proper access to assistive transportation, adequate healthcare, and the ability to live an independent, financially affordable life.
When the ADA (American Disabilities Act) was passed in 1990, the United States gave themselves a nice, large pat on the back and wiped their hands clean of people with disabilities. Our culture seems to think that because there are laws in place to “protect” and “assist” people with disabilities, the work is done. I think given our country’s history, most Americans have come to understand that the law does not always represent perfection or morality, yet when it comes to discussing topics of disability, I am often dismissed.
Why is that? Why are people so quick to help others fight for their rights, but also so disdainful toward the disabled? Who cares that there is not an automatic button on an outside door as long as there is a singular, accessible bathroom stall inside, right? An apartment building doesn’t need an elevator if it has three or fewer floors. Better make sure all your friends live downstairs from here on out. Don’t live in a big city where public transportation has to be accessible? No problem, you can buy a van with a ramp for only about $54,000.
What I outline above is minute in comparison to the very real issues people with disabilities face every single day. The ADA is a starting point, not a finish line — we need support going forward if we are going to stand a chance at impacting the way our world works. Allies are important in every fight, including ours.
Respect is a lifestyle choice
Here’s a fact that many able-bodied people have never considered: Being disabled is the only minority classification you can become overnight and against your will. And there is a good possibility that you will be affected by disability in your lifetime. Whether it be through an unfortunate accident that affects you or a loved one, through giving birth to a premature child, by aging and becoming elderly, or by way of some other connection, it is likely that disability will be a part of your life. I do not say this to worry you or make your uncomfortable, but rather to showcase the importance of disability rights in our society.
We are all part of the same family, right? As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Catholics think of being members of the same body — if that’s true, then we need to expand our imaginations to think of that body as including people with disabled bodies. Respecting people for who they are as people is a fundamental right because we all have innate dignity.
We each possess an unlimited capacity of respect in this world. Every person you come in contact with — whether they walk this earth or roll on it in a power chair — has their own complex list full of meaningful attributes under their name. People with disabilities want very little from their able-bodied peers. Would it be amazing if you stood up for our cause as an ally, or outwardly spoke out against injustices of inaccessibility? Yes, it would be incredible and beautiful, but it wouldn’t be nearly as impactful as simply gaining your respect.
For the people out there who say respect is earned, I disagree. I think all people deserve a certain level of respect in this world simply because they are created by God. Individuals with disabilities do not often receive this basic level of respect from the outside world. Normalizing respect for all — no matter their color, ability level, sexuality, gender, or religious beliefs — is the first step to creating a more inclusive and loving world for everyone, everywhere.