Examining Perceptions

by Robin Springer A friend of mine was in the supermarket recently, placing her groceries on the checkout counter. She was using one hand. The cashier said to her "It would go faster if you used both hands." My friend moved closer to the man, made eye contact, and responded "If both hands worked, I would." This story got me thinking about sight - what we see, how we see. How we interpret what we think we see. My friend may have looked "normal." She was wearing acceptable clothing. Her hair was combed in an appropriate way. But "normal" to whom? To herself? Maybe. To her friends? Perhaps. But she obviously was different. It was so blatant to the checker he made a comment about it. What was so obvious? She was using just one hand when most people use two hands. Was she dawdling? Was she lazy? Or was she modifying the task so she could be independently productive? Do people with disabilities see themselves as disabled or do they see themselves as people who have difficulty doing some things, just like everyone else in the world? You know, some people have a hard time with mathematics. Some people are hard-pressed to get to work on time. Some people have a problem hearing conversation, whether it is because he is deaf or because she is at a very noisy party. Understanding that the answers may be as numerous as those questioned, I engaged some people as to their thoughts on the subject. Dena, married and working full time, uses a wheelchair and has affected speech. She does not see herself as "disabled," nor does she consider herself "different." Several weeks ago she was in an advisory capacity at a facility that serves people with disabilities. Watching a group of clients being loaded onto a bus, she was surprised to see that the staff was condescending to the clients, ordering them about and treating them as if they were inferior. For the first time in her life Dena wondered to herself "Is that how people see me?" This encounter was a life-altering experience for her. She was given the opportunity to see how people who are "able-bodied" sometimes view people who are "disabled." She further reflected that when she first meets people they often do not take her seriously "because they can't understand what I'm saying." She realized that, "After they spend time with me and learn how to understand me, they start to take me more seriously." Interesting - people take her more seriously once they learn to understand her. Who changed? Keeping in mind that we are not always disabled or always able-bodied, we are able to notice the fluidity as we transition in and out of able-bodied and disabled states. When we are children we are dependent on our parents to care for us. As adults we may be able-bodied but break a bone in a sporting accident, rendering us disabled, even if temporarily. Senior citizens may have increasing joint stiffness and illness, limiting their ability to care for themselves. Our society is caught up being "normal." But the definition of normal varies among populations. More important than having a concept of what is "normal" may be having clarity as to what is "normal for me." At my office we give a discount to clients who are disabled because we are aware that, for the most part, when you have a disability, getting things done takes longer and costs more than it does for those who are able-bodied. We let our clients decide whether or not they "qualify" for the discount. Many of the clients who partner with us are on disability. It often amazes me how many of them are unable to work without adaptation, but would never categorize themselves as disabled. Comedian Eddie Izzard says in his standup act that as a child he was afraid that if the other kids discovered he did not conform to society's vision of "normal" they would "kill (him)." The basis for this anxiety was that "(Izzard) said a word they didn't understand." How often do we act as the children he described, fearing that to which we cannot relate? How often do we treat people we don't understand as inferior? How many Denas or Eddies are in your life? How does that make you feel? Robin Springer is the president of Computer Talk (www.comptalk.com), a consulting firm specializing in the design and implementation of speech recognition and other hands-free technology services. She can be reached at (888) 999-9161 or info@comptalk.com.

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