Stacy Ellingen

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Stacy’s Journal:  When Obvious is Too Obvious

2018-07-31
By: Stacy Ellingen
Posted in: Stacy's Journal

A tv commercial demonstrating how to interact with those with disabilities has been running in my area.  While the commercial is positive and has accurate advice, when I first saw it, I questioned why it’s even needed.  After all, we’re in the twenty-first century.  Shouldn’t people know to treat a person who happens to have a disability like any other person?  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  Although, it has significantly improved over the years, the general population still isn’t comfortable with people with disabilities.

 “She’s drooling.”  That’s what a man walked up and said to my mom as he handed her a paper towel in a congregational meeting after church one recent Sunday morning.  Very shocked and not wanting to make a scene, my mom quietly said, “thank you.”  I, on the other hand, was ready to walk out of the room right then and there.  Mom made me wait until we voted on the issue and then we left.  Words can’t describe how utterly embarrassed I was.  I don’t even think that the people sitting at our table realized what had happened (which is a good thing), but that’s not the point.  I’ve been going to that church all of my life and know that man has seen me many times before.  I realize that in his heart, he probably meant it well, but if these things are still going on in a church of all places, there is a lot more educating to do.  Most of the time, people with physical disabilities are well aware of what their bodies do or don’t do, and to have an adult point it out, is a real slap in the face (kids are a different story because they don’t know better).

Articles about “disability etiquette” have surfaced on social media in recent years.  One thing commonly discussed in those articles is how not to automatically help a person with a disability without first asking.  While it’s human nature to want to help somebody who appears to be struggling with a simple task, often people with disabilities and other conditions take pride in being able to do things independently.  If someone jumps in and tries to help without asking, not only could it hinder the person’s independence, it could also unintentionally harm the person or his/her equipment.  Another common thing often discussed in those articles is how people should always talk directly to the person even if he/she appears to unable to communicate or not cognitively aware.  This happens all the time to me.  Rather than asking me a question directly, they’ll phrase it in third-person and ask the person who I’m with.  This drives me crazy!  Granted, the people I’m with often answer questions for me just to save time, but questions should be always directed toward the person it’s about (if he/she is present) .

While those articles are great, I often wonder who reads them besides those who live and work in the disability community.  Generally speaking, most family and friends of someone with a disability learn fairly quickly what’s considered offensive to people who have disabilities and health conditions.  I’m betting that most of the people who read those articles certainty agree with the etiquette tips, but aren’t the ones who need the information.

I haven’t seen too many things about “not pointing out the obvious” for lack of a better words.  In my opinion, a lot of it has to do with the way people were brought up.  As I’m writing this, something else dawned on me.  Fifty years ago, people with disabilities were rarely seen in public.  That probably has a lot to do with why many older adults often aren’t sure what to do around people with different abilities.  It certainly isn’t an excuse by any means, but it explains a little bit—some older adults were never around people with disabilities while growing up.

Dealing with other people’s reactions definitely takes an emotional toll.  As I’ve said before, unless a situation presents itself, I usually don’t think of myself as having a disability.  However, it doesn’t sit well when I’m reminded of my differences due to someone pointing out a flaw.  Regardless of whether it was intentional or not, it still hurts.  I’ve learned to laugh most of the comments off, but there are some that really sting.  It’s when those happen that I need to be reminded that I’m a pretty unique person, and sometimes people are totally unaware that their comments are very degrading.  All we can do is keep educating society in hope that one day each and every person—regardless of his/her unique differences—is treated just like everyone else.  It’s apparent that we still have some work to do! 

***The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of InControl Wisconsin, the Network or any of our sponsors.

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Beth Ellingen
08/01/18 11:26:27AM @beth-ellingen:
Very true, Stacy, that older people aren't as accustomed to seeing people with different abilities out and about. Even for me, as a kid, we didn't have people with significantly different abilities in class with us. So, yeah...even though the obvious reaction should be ishut up and don't gawk, some people just don't get it.
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