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Reaching Out Will Break Down Barriers

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Jupiter Courier (Jupiter, FL), December 31, 2003.

People with disabilities are ideal targets.

Targets for fear of the unknown. Targets for misconceptions. Targets for negative attitudes.

The only way to erode these negative feelings is through exposure and interaction between people with disabilities and the able-bodied population.

Children are the great ice-breakers.

To them, I don't have multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease that has caused me to use a wheelchair. To them, my legs simply don't work.

To them, a person is not visually impaired. To them, their eyes simply don't work.

Children have the most simplistic perceptions, because they haven't been indoctrinated with political correctness. They don't have the wherewithal to have developed fears, misconceptions and negative attitudes.

For example, when I encounter a child in a store, his look of curiosity is compelling. As soon as I establish eye contact, his hesitancy or reluctance melts away. We then become friends, buddies. He wants to touch the chair, spin its wheels. Maybe even go for a ride.

"What happened to your legs?" he'll ask. And the conversation would begin between me and my new buddy. A few minutes later he is whisked away by his parents, but that little guy will not soon forget the man in a chair whose legs don't work anymore.

Breaking down barriers. Removing obstacles to understanding. Developing a continuing interaction. Those are responsibilities for every person with a disability.

If we are not willing to reach out, how can we expect the able-bodied world to understand and empathize with our issues?

Maybe then people will stop yelling at the deaf or blind, as if that would facilitate communication. And people with cerebral palsy will not have their problems with balance be mistaken for public drunkenness. Waiters and other service personnel will address us directly, instead of in the third person.

So now, let's all be determined to reach out to each other. Especially people with disabilities. Just as children do, able-bodied people should look to us to set the tone. Establish a rapport. After a while, the disability evaporates from their minds, and a person with a disability is then perceived simply--as a person. And all the barriers, all the negative attitudes, all the misconceptions magically disappear.

And then, just as with racial and gender equality, the furtherance of rights for the disabled results in a better place for all of us.

Allan Appel writes a biweekly column about disabilities. He can be reached at Allan Appel, c/o Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, 800 W. Indiantown Road, Jupiter, FL 33458, or email at aappel223@yahoo.com