People with disabilities are rarely seen in a positive light. Life following a disability is often only linked to the negative, such as ignition of others’ fears (1), concerns about one’s own human fragility (2), or worry over what others might think if seen or associated with a person with disability (1). Experiencing an injury myself has given me a different perspective. I have come to learn that those with disabilities have been given the opportunity to learn about themselves and others, and to grow exponentially, usually in wonderful ways.
Yet if a person with a disability is successful, he or she is typically viewed as “superhuman,” and forced onto the receiving end of “heroism.” When those with disabilities independently travel overseas, found organizations, or thrive in their careers, they are usually perceived as out of the ordinary, to be pointed at and viewed with marvel. This attitude is far from helpful. If one looks closer at the successes of those with disabilities, one discovers not extraordinary individuals, but ordinary people who live life on life’s terms and have found a way to move beyond negative perceptions.
Unnecessary fear and exaggerated heroism are some of the attitudes people with disabilities must face and address on a daily basis. For many of us, myself included, the most challenging part of life with disability is not the disability itself; we are often successful in accepting and managing that aspect. Rather, it is the treatment we receive from others who do not take time to consider the impact of their attitudes and words.
After my injury, strangers everywhere felt they had the right to ask me the details of my condition, rather than talk to me like an ordinary person (e.g., ask how my day was). The only thing everyone seemed to focus on was the disability. It was as if the physical change suddenly represented my entire being. This is a universal, burdensome experience that people with disabilities face.
The most helpful attitude friends and strangers can take is to genuinely view and treat those with disabilities as equals who are fully human and no better or worse than any other person. They should try to look beyond visible injury and connect to the person within. Humanity, after all, transcends physical limitations.
(1) Siller, J., Chapman, A, Ferguson, L. T., & Vann, D. (1967). Attitudes of the nondisabled toward the physically disabled. In J. Siller & K. R. Thomas (1995) Essays and research on disability (pp. 21-30). Athens, GA: Elliott & Kitzpatrick.
(2) Livneh, H. (1980). Disability and monstrosity: Further comments. Rehabilitation Literature, 41(11-12), 280-283.
(3) Mackelprang, R. W. (1991). Neither hero or service project: Developing healthy attitudes toward people with disabilities. Paper presented at the 1989 Northwest Sunstone Symposium. Retrieved on-line May 14, 2009.
About the Author
Susan Stuntzner is an Assistant Professor at the University of Idaho.