teen boy in wheelchair arms outstretched

The Freedom to Be Respected

“As we celebrate Independence Day, I think it aligns with our mission perfectly. Supporting clients and their families as they gain strength, skills, resources, and information to build the life they want is what independence is all about. Our work builds inclusion, dignity, and the overall strength of clients, families, and our larger community.”

-Elise Hough, CEO, Easter Seals Greater Houston 

As I write this, it’s 9 a.m. on July 5 and most Americans are settling back into everyday summer routines following Independence Day. Hopefully while understanding that freedom was never meant to be all “rights” and no responsibilities—especially where perceived “rights” disregard others’ rights.

“I Am Not ‘Disabled,’ I ‘Have’ a Disability”

If you or someone in your family have special needs, you probably know the pain of being on the receiving end of others’ disregard—the attitude that says “disabled people” are incapable of just about anything, including intelligent thought. Fortunately, condescending attitudes are more the exception and less the rule these days. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, it was taken for granted that a physical disability, let alone a mental disability, automatically disqualified someone for any position of influence. (Few people knew the extent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s paralysis until long after he was President of the United States.)

Not only have public attitudes improved, but modern technology makes it easier than ever to work around mobility and communication impairments. Still, any visible challenge will draw the occasional rude question or condescending assumption. When it happens, you’re free to assert your right to be respected—but there are effective and ineffective ways to do this.

Be the Bigger Person

Angrily contradicting an offender will put them on the defensive and get you nowhere but into a pointless argument. Going on a rant will only convince people that you are irrational and childish. The only way to make lasting impact is to win others over (as opposed to “winning an argument”), and the only way to do this is to be mature, reasonable, and empathetic.

Be Mature. No matter how annoyed you are, leave anger and sarcasm out of your response. Stay calm but firm as you explain why you don’t need “help” or can in fact handle a challenge. Accept any apologies with grace—no smugness or “Well, you should be sorry” attitudes.

Be Reasonable. A person-to-person exchange is no time to vent your frustration at every injustice you (and the rest of your demographic) have ever suffered at the hands of the able-bodied. Stick to the matter at hand.

Be Empathetic. Empathy means trying to understand the other party’s point of view, no matter how unreasonable it seems. Especially, give the other party the benefit of the doubt for good intentions. The majority of offenses come from people who are merely uninformed or thoughtless; assuming deliberate cruelty will destroy any chances of influencing their attitudes.

Where Firmer Action Is Needed

A polite correction doesn’t always do the job, of course. Often the hardest offenders to dissuade are the well-meaning ones—the types who grab the back of a wheelchair and start pushing before its occupant even has a chance to say “No thank you,” and who won’t be stopped by anything short of locking the brake. Remember that if you give in, it only encourages people to continue the same behavior. There’s nothing rude about a firm, unemotional “No, thank you,” repeated as often as necessary.

Not all disrespect can be corrected face to face. Your problem may be large-scale attitudes—or constantly finding “disabled” parking spots occupied by cars without “disabled” designations. The one thing not to do is let bitterness build up. Let the small offenses go without making them your problem. For larger issues, you can take the matter to a higher authority (there’s now a Parking Mobility app for reporting disabled-parking violations at minimal inconvenience) or become involved in public advocacy.

Prove Yourself and Be Yourself

The best way to prove you can make a worthwhile contribution is to do it. Every nonprofit has volunteer opportunities to fit every ability—or you can bring garden flowers to a neighbor, or take on additional chores in your own household. Remember, responsibility is a key element of freedom; and if you act entitled to special favors because of your limitations, you’re effectively inviting others to see you as immature and helpless.

Finally, the right to respect includes respect for your uniqueness—including your limitations. You may not be able to follow all the above tips if you have vocal-communication impairments or if it takes extra energy to keep your emotions in check—and that’s all right. It’s perfectly reasonable to withdraw with dignity and send a written explanation later. It’s nothing to be ashamed of if you need more time for self-care than the average person. The airplane principle of “put on your own oxygen mask first” applies to everyday needs: only by taking care of yourself can you be free to make your best contribution and to influence others.

P.S. On Behalf of My Child

If your child is the one with special needs, it’s even harder to stay calm and reasonable when someone insults their dignity. But you may be delivering the greater insult if you assume full responsibility for speaking up—or doing anything else—on their behalf. Even preschoolers have the right to express opinions, make decisions, and invent their own ways of excelling in spite of limitations. Treat your special-needs children with the same respect you’d want anyone else to show them. Their future—and everyone’s daily life, as you free up time to meet your own needs—will be better for it.

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