The touchstone of my adult life in the last five years has been this little boy. Let's call him Baby J. I look after him, and help out his parents a few times a week, and we are good friends. We have dinner at each others houses. They are always there for me if I need help as I am for them, and we live just a few blocks from each other. I don't have any kids of my own. I never really wanted any. This little guy just crawled inside my heart the first time I saw him, and I doubt that I will ever feel any different. One day I was having lunch with my Mom and I just said: "I don't want any kids. I guess I will just watch J grow up, and that will be my experience with kids."
To this little boy, I am a friend, playmate, sometimes disciplinarian (with mom and dad's instruction of course) and always, an ally. I would fight dragons for him, and sometimes think that the older he gets, the more I may have to teach him to fight dragons as well. Baby J has Cerebral Palsy, and although you would think in this day and age, with the Americans with Disabilities Act, during this time when we strive to be so politically correct, this wouldn't be a big hindrance to him. I can assure you, with the spirit that lives within that little boy, it will not be. I worry about the rest of the world, the attitudes of some become the attitudes of the next generation.
Recently, I spent time with an adult friend of mine who has a physical disability. The first thing we did was go to a restaurant. The staff seemed to address me, rather than him when it came to questions about where to sit, and the waitress seemed uneasy asking him for his order. She talked to him in a very simplistic manner. I have seen this before, and it makes my blood boil. This man has a BA in journalism, and travels the country as an entertainer. He is a brilliant writer, one of the most intelligent people I know.
He has a speech issue because of his disability. People assume that he is also mentally handicapped. They talk to him like he is a child at times. At other times, he is revered for his awesome accomplishments in his field. People that know him, revere his many talents. It is a hard life, never knowing which way you are going to be treated. We went to Wal-Mart, the cashier called him "Honey" and talked to him the same way. I was furious. It is more embarrassing to him if I get angry, so I never quite know what to do. I have a hot temper at times like that, so I am better off keeping my lip buttoned.
He always smiles and takes it in stride. He never gets as angry as I do, at least not that I know of. Then today, I read that Johnnie Tuitel, author of children's books and motivational speaker, was deplaned from an airline flight because they deemed him "Too disabled to fly alone." Johnnie travels the country as a motivational speaker, and when he reaches home, he gets in his own vehicle that he drives from his wheelchair. I have heard other tales of handicapped accessible rooms being higher priced than regular rooms at hotels, which is illegal, and of the same rooms that are supposed to have accessible bathrooms not coming with showers that are safe for someone with a physical disability. Not to mention that if you use a wheelchair, and you need a shuttle to the hotel to meet your speaking engagement, in most major cities, you would be straight out of luck.
To understand the impact of all of this, you would have to walk a mile in their courageous, not worn on the soles shoes. The people that I am writing about defied the odds of what the experts told them that their lives could be, and went on to become more than most of us could ever dream of. They are the lesson-givers and muses. They deserve respect and a decent hotel room to stay in when they school us morons who simper about small things how to become authentic. Denying them their basic rights is like telling Jesus Christ Himself to sleep in the garage.
There are things that you can do, dear average human, to stand up for the rights of people with disabilities. I am far from an expert, but having spent seven years working with people with disabilities, and having friends to tell me first hand what it is like, I can give a few helpful hints.
1. Do not see equipment first: See the person first. Greet them, make direct eye contact, assume that they understand you even if they do not speak clearly as you do. If they look like they need assistance, ask them if they need help. Don't walk by, be decent.
2. Be an activist and an advocate: If you see something at your workplace that does not look accessible, let someone know. Point out issues with accessibility that your customers have mentioned to corporate entities. If you are at an establishment and notice that there are areas where it doesn't look accessible to everyone, let someone know or write it on a comment card. Accessibility isn't just for those that have a lifelong handicap, it is also for those with temporary handicaps. Break your leg or an arm sometime and try to go to your favorite restaurant. You will completely "get" how accessible it is from that vantage point.
3. Learn: If you have a lack of understanding or find yourself uneasy when someone has a disability, learn more about people with disabilities and their contributions to society. The more that you learn about people who are "different" the more you will see that we are all the same. I know a few friends that will actually barf when they read this, but it is true.
We have come far, but not far enough. Until every person has equal accessibility and is treated with respect, people that care must not give up fighting. The funny thing about a disability is that anyone can developtone at any time. Tomorrow, myself or someone I know could have an accident or injury that would forever change their perspective. That is why it is important that each person is an advocate for others, so that the Baby J's of the world, the next generation of amazing people, can keep knocking down barriers, and not have to worry about doors getting in the way.