I recently asked a new acquaintance a rather telling question. We had never met before. We only had a few minutes to form any kind opinion about each other. He was well spoken, appeared to be quite smart and I posed a question. I asked him to respond honestly, brutally if necessary. The question was this: What was your opinion of me when you first saw me? His answer was pretty much what I expected: “I saw a disabled woman”. I next asked him what that meant to him. His response? “You are someone who needs help in your life because you’re unable to do anything”. His Smart Factor dropped a few notches.
Unfortunately this response is pretty typical. People see the chair not the person. Once people get to know me they realize that I’m not the chair and I am not the disease. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I have a disability. No, I am not a disabled woman. Cars are disabled, toasters are disabled. I have a disability. I also have red hair and an attitude to match. You see it all comes down to perception.
Almost instantly I had judged that man to be educated because he spoke well. Actually he is educated and attractive and I’ll say nothing more. People who live with the accoutrements of a disease run into this daily. Yes I may need help getting something off-the-shelf but don’t assume I’m infirm because I just asked you for help. This is why I have become a talker. The more I speak, the more people come to understand that I’m a woman first.
Is there an answer to this conundrum? Yes. Time. Attitudes will change but it takes time. It will also take people willing to support those changes. You cannot legislate behaviour but you can put the focus on the issue. I’m in a wheelchair, that’s really hard to miss, but I still function quite well in society. I don’t want the authorities to force people to do what is right, I want them to do it of their own accord and that takes time. It also takes people like me helping others to see, not beating them into submission. That is rather frowned upon.