My last essay, Can you hear me now?, explained how one perceives ideas based on our assumptions about the person expressing them. For example, the statement “there should be a stop sign at the intersection” hits my ears one way when it comes from the Director of Traffic Planning, Municipality, U.S.A., and has an entirely different weight when I overhear the crazy shopping cart lady ranting to no one while she waves a spatula. We either need a stop sign or not, but how dismissive a listener is depends on who’s doing the talking.
Likewise, we can’t solve problems for folks with disabilities without some consensus on just what those problems are – so we must examine the filter of our assumptions about disability.
Presumption of punishment
I’ve observed a subtle “presumption of punishment” assumption from some people. They think if one has a disability his/her life should be harder. Why apply resources to solving problems that “should” exist? Hence the complex, systemic problems of disability don’t get the complex, systemic solutions indicated because it only makes sense that the wheelchair guy has a tougher time at stairs or the blind lady needs to depend on friends to go buy milk in under 90 minutes.
This attitude, unchallenged, punishes people whose lives are already hard enough, thank you very much, by diverting the resources that could help solve physical barriers away from those solutions. It abandons the sufferer of affliction to not just determine his/her own solution, but to implement it without aid.
My Biggest challenge: Transportation
Because I’m blind and a suburbanite, transportation – simple “point A to point B” living – is without doubt my biggest challenge. What has worked for me is a multi-pronged approach: family, friends, Craigslist interns for errands, multimodal transit for longer personal missions (bus-train-light rail) that don’t involve anyone else, or involve someone else sitting around firing birds at pigs for 75 minutes while I take care of my business. Oddly, planes are the easiest mode of transportation because no one has a car with them on the plane, so the necessary infrastructure for air travel more closely resembles the daily life conundrum I face.
Years ago when I first lost my sight, I was extremely cranky when I’d try to go do things (like job interviews). This was due to the complex logistics required to work around the barriers just to get me to the conference room on time and presentable. In discussing the frustration with a professional trained to help people change the areas of discomfort in their lives, she took the approach that I would just have to get used to it, and I was making a big deal of the difficulties. A few days later a major airline left passengers trapped on a runway for hours – and the passengers sued! I walked into my next appointment, sat down, folded my cane, and said, “when most Americans get treated once like I get treated every day, they sue. Major TV networks send news crews to cover the horror. And your advice so far has been for me to put on a happy face.” She leaned back in her chair, the weight of the comparison hitting her. Her jaw dropped. Only once she discarded her “presumption of punishment” mentality were we able to brainstorm some workable strategies to get me where I needed to be without the emotional response of sitting on tarmac for hours and hours.
I don’t believe people need to walk a mile in my shoes. We each have imagination; we can all stop and think a moment rather than piling onto suffering unnecessarily. I encourage everyone to think about someone other than themselves for a moment and figure out or ask what you can do that would be of genuine help.