When you see a blind person walking down the street, or encounter someone who is deaf or in a wheelchair, what's your initial reaction? Curiosity? Pity? Fear? Awkwardness?
If you answered yes to any of these, you're not alone. Chances are you don't regularly associate with someone who is disabled, so these feelings are rather common.
Having been blind since birth, I've encountered a wide range of reactions when meeting people, from curious stares when I walk with my white cane or holding someones arm, to amazement at being able to feed and dress myself. I was even ignored by a server at a restaurant.
Most people don't mean to be rude or insensitive. They just aren't sure what to expect. Here are four points to keep in mind if you should happen to meet a person with a disability.
1. We're just like you. Aside from the disability itself, we have the same hopes, dreams, and feelings as anyone else. We laugh at something funny, cry over sad movies, and express anger or frustration when we're wronged. Many people with disabilities work, raise families, and take part in social activities. Instead of concentrating on the disability, look at the person the same way you would at a family member, your best friend or other acquaintance.
2. It's Ok to ask questions. Many people are afriad of offending someone by asking about their disability. When meeting anyone for the first time, it's natural to be curious about who they are, where they're from, what they do for a living, etc.
Asking questions about a disability is usually acceptable, as long as you don't give the impression you think that person is helpless. Don't, for example, ask a blind person how he feeds and bathes himself. Instead, find out if she uses special computer equipment to do her job, how does he travel around town,does she read Braille or audio books, etc. If someone does take offense to a question, don't assume everyone with a disability feels that way.
3. Offer assistance when necessary. You see a woman in a wheelchair having trouble entering a building or negotiating steps. You'd like to help, but don't want to embarrass her. What should you do?
It's usually appropriate to lend a hand if someone is having obvious difficulty, but keep in mind that not everyone will be accepting of your help. It's not much different than pulling over and offering assistance to a motorist with a flat tire. Unless the woman in the wheelchair is in danger of causing harm to herself or others, it isn't necessary to press the issue if they refuse your assistance. You did your part.
4. Remember that we all have obstacles to overcome. No matter who we are, each of us has a weakness or challenge to face. How do you feel when you are treated differently because you're bald, short, or heavyset? Wouldn't you rather people accept you for who you really are, rather than be pitied, made fun of, or shunned? So would a disabled person.
Meeting someone with a disability doesn't have to be an intimidating experience. Asking questions, offering assistance, and putting yourself in their shoes can go a long way toward recognizing them as people with normal thoughts and feelings who just happen to have a disability. Who knows? You just might make some new friends in the process.
many friends and colleagues have said to me, "I often forget that you are blind." To me, that is the ultimate compliment.