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Disabled See Increase in Sensitivity

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted with permission from the Guelph Mercury, November 4, 2002. Image: An individual standing strong, with their hands up in the air, as if cheering. The image is intentionally faded so the reader cannot tell if the person is a man or a woman, his or her age, etc.

Jason Dunkerley was walking in downtown Brantford a few years ago when he was stopped in his tracks by a police officer.

The 25-year-old University of Guelph student, who has been blind since birth, apparently looked a little "out of it" and had caught the attention of a passer by.

That person called police. "Someone thought I looked high, so I got stopped on the street," Dunkerley said. "The cop was very nice about it, and it was cold so I appreciated the ride. But it would have been nice if that person had talked to me directly."

Dunkerley was among the speakers at a Saturday workshop attended by about a dozen volunteers representing various city organizations. The seminar at the Evergreen Seniors Centre was part of the Community and Volunteer Educational Series.

Dunkerley shared a list of dos and don'ts when dealing with the physically or psychologically impaired.

But for the most part, the message from the Hamilton native studying international development was simple.

"Treat people as people," Dunkerley said. "It's OK to go up and ask the person if they need help. It's a bit of shared responsibility. It's my responsibility to tell people, no I'll be OK."

The seminar, called Interacting with People with Disabilities, was headed by Barry Wheeler, an adviser for Students with Disabilities at the University of Guelph.

Wheeler, who has a rare neuro-muscular disease called Sharcot-Marie-Tooth that affects his mobility, said the department assists 600 students with disabilities on campus.

While stories like Dunkerley's show that some people still need sensitivity training to deal with the disabled, Wheeler said that sensitivity has grown in the last few years.

"Things are improving," he said. "With technology and more and more workshops like this, the message is getting out there."

The challenge now is to offer more fine-tuning to that sensitivity, and avoid the sort of language and behaviour that may inadvertently isolate those with disabilities, he said.

Wheeler offered a number of general tips. Those dealing with people in wheelchairs should make sure ahead of time a planned destination is completely accessible, including the washrooms, he said.

When helping someone who is disabled, always ask first. Speak directly to a person with a disability as opposed to a companion or sign language interpreter who may have come along, he said.

And be aware that certain terms -- like crippled, deaf and dumb and wheelchair bound -- are now considered unacceptable by those with disabilities.

"Avoid using terms like 'struggle with', or 'a victim of,' " Wheeler said. "I don't struggle, I cope with this."

The full day of activities at the centre is a yearly event, with seminars and workshops on various topics. Roughly 120 people registered, representing St. John's Ambulance, the City of Guelph and the Guelph Community Health Centre, among others.

Wheeler said the volunteer community is an important group to reach when heightening sensitivity about those with disabilities. "It's these people who are often working, either as volunteers or in paid positions with an agency, with those with disabilities."

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