I usually see it in their eyes. They feel uncomfortable and don’t know how to behave. Maybe it’s my wheelchair or my crooked finger joints or stiff arm gestures. I have a feeling, but it goes unstated. I know I need to be gentle, to slow down and let them adjust.
When I was a child, adults would talk down to me and I could hear the change in their voice when they spoke to me versus other children. It absolutely enraged me. And because I was a child I would dismiss them with unkind words or talk down to them right back. Even at a young age I knew that I was being treated differently because my rheumatoid arthritis made me look different. Somehow disability was equated in their minds with inability, and therefore I could not be treated respectfully.
Sympathy and Patience
As an adult, I have more sympathy and patience, but only so much. I can sense the discomfort people unaccustomed to encountering people with disabilities or physical differences convey with their averted eyes and loss of words. In these moments I give them time. I’ll talk about a subject we can connect on (maybe the weather, small talk—nothing mentally challenging). Let them breathe a minute, get a grasp on their thoughts and regroup.
And it usually works. They calm down and remember themselves. They realize that I’m just a person, like them. Natural thought and conversation return.
I get it and have had my own moments where I’ve needed to adjust. Novelty is strange and I know that my joint deformities and difference are extremely apparent. With a little time and understanding, most people can recover.
It impresses me when I meet a new person and feel their immediate ease. I feel like it either is someone used to people with disabilities, accustomed to interacting with a wide range of diverse people, or just naturally relaxed no matter the situation. I also wonder if greater integration of people with disabilities into workplaces and communities may have also helped. In recent decades: advocacy, laws, and improvements in accessibility mean more people with disabilities participate in public life, and therefore are becoming more commonplace and accepted.
There are plenty of situations where I don’t mind being underestimated. While I couldn’t stand it as a child, I now know the advantages of floating under the radar. If a person mistakenly thinks my disease and disabilities mean I understand less or provide less value, there is much I can observe while they operate under these false beliefs. I can follow my own agenda or work it in stealthily in my own chosen time and place.
But I prefer that a person comes around, sees me as a another human, and maybe has a moment of learning. I certainly learn all the time when I meet people from a variety of backgrounds. I benefit from these encounters, from expanding my perception and knowledge of the world. For example, I know that my disabilities are unique in many ways. I use a wheelchair, but I can stand and walk a little. Other wheelchair users do not walk at all, but may have more arm strength and flexibility. Just a couple examples of how we are all different, including people with disabilities.
Humanity is not a monolith…
Humanity is not a monolith. We’re all different and need to adjust when interacting with other people because we cannot have all the answers at all times. Instead, I think we need to give each other a moment, take a breath, remember our own humanity and connect to another person.