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I talk to my mom on the phone most days of the week. Often, we don’t have much to say to each other, because neither one of us get out much. Occasionally, my mom will read something in the newspaper and share it with me. Then she says, “I had some chat today.”
Last week, she said she had some “chat” for me. She read part of an article out of the newspaper about a man who had recently finished his master’s degree and was out celebrating.
He went with some other people to enjoy his accomplishments, and when the music started he began to move his wheelchair around to the beat. A woman, seeing him dance in his chair, left her partner and came over and danced in front of him.
In the article, the man said that the woman’s gesture ruined his evening. He was out having fun. He was enjoying the evening and the woman saw his chair and singled him out. She didn’t see him as a man enjoying himself. She saw his chair and took pity on him (at least that is how he interpreted the events and ended up feeling).
As someone with a disability, and as someone who doesn’t always know how to respond to disabilities beyond my own, I feel for both the man and the woman in the story.
When someone has a mental illness, I think it is best to treat them how you would treat anyone else, and leave it is up to them to tell you where their limits are. This probably works with all people with disabilities.
It is hard to be disabled and admit to yourself that you can’t do all the things you once did, or all the things that others can easily do.
It is important to see the person first and not the disability. It is important to allow people to be as independent as they possibly can be, because it is tough to ask people to do things for you, or make accommodations for you. Asking strangers for help can be particularly difficult.
I’m sure the woman who left her partner to dance with the man in a wheelchair intentions were good, but we need to listen and learn from people who are different from us about the most respectful way to handle their differences.
I know it is uncomfortable to be presented with a situation where you want to do the right thing, but you don’t know what the right thing is.
The last time I was away from home, and was overcome by anxiety, my friend said, “Do you want to walk?” On that walk, I was able to tell my friend about my anxiety which I was unable to overcome and I asked her to take me home. My friend didn’t make any assumptions about my symptoms. She didn’t try to talk me out of them, change my mind, or tell me to get over it in the many ways that people “kindly” do to people who are mentally ill. She was simply present for me, listened to me, and then when I asked, she acted by taking me home.
I can’t think of a better way to support someone with a disability – listen, support, act if asked.
Most of us want to do the “right” thing for someone with a disability. The right thing can be allowing them to lead you in the direction they want or need to go.
It’s tough to realize our best intentions are sometimes insulting, or rude, or hurtful, but if we can put ego aside and allow people to teach us, we will be far more compassionate, educated, and sensitive.
That can only be good.