One of my favorite involvements on campus is writing for Buzzsaw magazine. Right now, I’m in the process of writing an article about equal opportunity for disability in the workplace. Every interview I’ve done for my article has been thought-provoking, but I especially enjoyed my visit to the Finger Lakes Independence Center.
I spoke with Program Director Larry Roberts, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. It was incredible to talk to someone with a disability who also advocates for people who face both similar and vastly different barriers. He and I talked for about an hour about the problems surrounding disability in our society, and how to go about changing our perspectives in order to solve some of these issues in the future.
“Hire the Handicapped” used to be the catchphrase that encouraged employers to bring employees with disabilities into their businesses. Handicapped, Larry told me, has been out of use for a long time now, and we are currently experiencing another shift in language. The word “disabled” is going out of style in favor of the phrase “people with disabilities.” This preference puts the emphasis on the person first, and their condition second.
“How we speak about an issue is very indicative of how we think about things,” Larry said. He explained that we have to think about the words we use in order to make change. “It really does have an effect,” he revealed. He pointed out that positive change for people with disabilities and the issue of language are a bit of a chicken-egg situation: does thinking about language lead to more accepting attitudes, or does a change in perspective cause heightened awareness of how we describe disability?
Language is one of the elements of what Larry called the “basic etiquette” surrounding disability, which he also said has been improving over time as people become more conscientious of what is and isn’t appropriate to do and say in interacting with people with disabilities. Other examples of “basic etiquette” include:
- Refraining from petting a guide dog or guide dog-in-training
- Asking before helping someone with a disability (especially someone who is blind, because your approach can be jarring)
- Avoiding trivializing someone’s physical disability by comparing it to your experience with a broken leg, for example
- Never assuming that two people you know who have the same disability are acquainted with each other
- Being aware of personal space (Larry emphasized the importance of this issue, saying “it’s not okay to touch someone’s wheelchair or pat someone’s shoulder”)
A general attitude of respecting boundaries is key. “In some ways it’s very straightforward and not complicated,” Larry argued. He did acknowledge, however, that sometimes understanding disability is difficult for people who don’t have these physical or mental barriers, and he expressed optimism about the future of this awareness. “The next piece that’s coming is the competency of people generally to deal with disabilities,” he said, “We’re beginning to be at a place where disability is seen as an ordinary thing.”
Conversations about disability are both a blessing and a curse. “If the disability isn’t important to the conversation, don’t mention it,” Larry urged. Playing a bit of devil’s advocate (but also genuinely interested in how he would answer the question), I countered by asking, “But don’t we need to talk about it in order to decrease the stigma?” He smiled and agreed, but maintained that it’s a bit more complex than that.
“There’s a difficult tension between wanting to be seen as human but also not having a really important part of who I am ignored or glossed over,” he said.
The issue of equal employment for people with disabilities is “much more complicated than we can imagine,” Larry explained, but as a society we can begin to break down the attitudinal barriers that contribute to the problem by challenging long-held beliefs and perspectives about what it means to have a disability.
Our current notion of the correct language to describe the ever-growing population of people with disabilities is a step in the right direction. Putting the person first is crucial in order to respect that someone’s identity both includes and goes beyond their physical and mental capabilities.