Thursday, June 27

The correct way to interact with disabled people


ARE disabled people emotionally sensitive? Do they easily get offended? Is it all right to ask them if they need help? How do we communicate with them? Should disabled people be accorded special treatment? I have been asked these questions many times in the last few weeks.

I asked those who posed these questions why they have such ideas about disabled people and the assumption we need to be treated differently. The common reasons given were that because our movements or senses are limited, we cannot do things like non-disabled people, and we become sensitive if we are not treated the correct way.

Are these questions valid? Is what is being said true? Regardless, questions like these should not be taken lightly. Brushing them off as trivial could leave those with doubts in these matters confused, unsure, and reluctant to interact with disabled people.

A society that is educated and informed about disability becomes more inclusive. I am in the business of disability education and it is my responsibility to clear away such doubts and misconceptions. When such issues arise, I always try to address them to ensure they are not perpetuated further.

Let’s go through them one by one.

Are disabled people emotionally sensitive? No. Those of us who have accepted our impairments and moved on are not. Our emotions are not like balloons that burst with just a pin prick. Those of us who are out and about in public places are not. In fact, having gone through more trials and tribulations than most people, I dare say we are emotionally stronger.

Do we easily get offended? No. We do not get agitated without reason. We have learnt to be patient in spite of the difficulties and barriers that we face all the time. Our lives would be miserable if we find fault with everything. We have learnt to deal with unwelcome gawks and inappropriate questions like “What’s wrong with you?” the first time we meet.

On the same note, I want to point out that there is nothing wrong with having or living with impairments. This is a human condition. Be it from birth, accidents, disease, or old age, we are all susceptible to it. Our conditions are not an aberration. I would prefer people ask because they genuinely want to know and not out of passing curiosity.

Of course there are some disabled people who are emotionally sensitive and get offended easily. But there are non-disabled people who are like that too. I am sure we have met a few every now and then. Therefore, it is not unique to us. Rather, it is a human characteristic and should not be attributed solely to disabled people.

Is it all right to ask them if they need help? Yes. Random strangers have asked if I needed help when they saw me all alone. When I needed help, I welcomed them. When I did not, I tell them I can manage by myself. Please do not take that as a snub when we decline. We try to be as independent as we can and do as much as we can by ourselves.

Most of the time when I say I do not need help, these good Samaritans usually ask again just to be doubly sure and then take leave politely. Some even gave me the thumbs up sign as they walked away. I am grateful that people care enough to take the time and effort to stop and ask.

How do we communicate with someone who is blind, deaf or uses a wheelchair? There are no hard and fast rules on how to talk to us. Engage us just like how you would communicate with other people. There is no need to be extra cautious with your words. We are not that fragile that mere words can affect our feelings.

Should disabled people be accorded special treatment? No. As disabled people, we want equality. We are fine with being treated normally. We want to be treated just like how everyone else is treated, no more and no less. There is no need to go out of one’s way to do anything extra-special for us.

My friends have always interacted with me like how they interacted with their other friends. We talked and joked without reservation. They never treated me any differently and I do not expect them to. That is how it should be. I would feel awkward if they were cautious with their words or actions when around me.

People who ask those questions probably do not have disabled family members or friends. And not knowing someone who is disabled personally, they tend to think along the lines of how society generally looks at disabled people, that our deficits make us miserable and unhappy.

They put themselves in our situation and project their own fears and insecurities of living a life like that onto themselves, assuming that is how they would feel and consequently how we should be. These misconceptions are also portrayed in books and movies. Such drama makes the stories more interesting but is in no way a true representation of reality.

As disabled people, we are not frustrated by our impairments. We have found ways to work around our limitations. What troubles us are discrimination, oppression and prejudice. The lack of accessibility makes life difficult for us. Still, we try to

lead an active and fulfilling life, and push for a society that is more just and inclusive at the same time.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that the only correct way to treat us is like how other people are normally treated, no more and no less. It is as simple as that. Please do not let your reservations and doubt hold you back. It becomes easier and ultimately second nature as you meet more and more disabled people and get to know us better. That is when you realise that we are just one of you all along.