French artist Henri Matisse was purported to have said, "It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everyone else."
The brilliant mind that brought us impressionist images like "The Dance" and "The Dessert" and who, when left bedridden at the end of his life, switched to paper cuttings, was troubled because he was different. What beauty we would have lost if Matisse had "painted like everyone else"?
March is Disability Awareness Month. It is the opportunity for us to appreciate our differences and advocate for equity.
We all want to be connected, authentic and competent. Too many with disabilities, as it was for Matisse, may feel "less than."
What can you do to help build a more welcoming and inclusive community for individuals with disabilities?
Acknowledge! I remember as a girl my mother reprimanding me "not to stare" when I saw a person with a disability. The wheelchair was intriguing to me but in following her well-meaning directive, I looked away. A smile and greeting might have opened the conversation, benefiting us both. We can all help with the feeling of connectedness just by communicating.
Remember to speak directly to the person with a disability, not their companion. Don’t assume that the person doesn’t have the ability to see, hear, comprehend or respond to you. If you don’t understand what has been said, a simple "I’m sorry, I didn’t understand" is the best response. Allow time for a response as well. If it is possible that they did not understand your comments, rephrase rather than repeat.
Ask! If you want to be of help, remember to ask first. To say "may I be of some help?" rather than to step in and do something for the person is more respectful of their sense of competence. Touch, as with any stranger, is appropriate only when invited. That goes for the wheelchair, a service animal or any other mobility device that might be used.
Awareness! Words such as "crippled," "handicapped" or "retarded" are offensive. Remember, it is person-first language – a child with autism (not "an autistic child") or a woman with a disability (rather than "the disabled woman"). If you make a mistake, apologize. Don’t allow your fear of making a mistake to contribute to someone’s feeling isolated.
Be aware of your environment. Are doorways, elevators, hallways and aisles clear and is accessible seating available at all times? If you have ever used crutches or pushed a stroller, you have perhaps appreciated easy access.
Is your business or place of employment welcoming to people with disabilities? Is there a provision for an employment application not online? Is the individual encouraged to identify their disability without consequence? Unemployment for the population with disabilities is more than three times that for the able-bodied and neurotypical population. Authenticity comes from employment.
Advocate! Above all, be an advocate. It isn’t uncommon to be relatively unaware of the issues of people with disabilities.
It may only be when someone close to you has to manage in a world not designed for them that you gain a little more understanding. Or it might be when a story hits the media as it did earlier this year when four young people in Chicago restrained, taunted and abused a young man with intellectual disabilities.
Not only did law enforcement react, but we saw a national uprising.
Act! Each of us, regardless of our varying abilities, has something to contribute. Each of us "paints" in our own manner and fashion. How do we find our place in the world … and help everyone else find theirs?