GUEST COMMENTARY: Maximize full access for all, all of the time

2013-09-06T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Maximize full access for all, all of the timeBy Teresa Torres nwitimes.com
September 06, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Prejudice: Any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.

Discrimination: Unfair treatment of a person, racial group, minority, etc; action based on prejudice.

These words are most often heard in discussions about race or ethnicity. But they also apply to people with disabilities, who represent all races and ethnicities, all ages, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, sizes and shapes. They are your family, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, and one of these days, if you live long enough, they are you.

People with disabilities are lazy. And they are ambitious. They are pleasant. And they are obnoxious. In other words, they are unique individuals, just like everybody else. Having a disability doesn’t imbue someone with specific personality qualities or individual strengths or weaknesses.

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects the civil rights of these individuals and their families. Those who fought for its passage sought only equality – the chance for a level playing field. Unfortunately, in pockets of this nation – including Northwest Indiana – there continues to be a pervasive perception they are "special" people who need and want special treatment.

Special means different. Different means other than. All of that begets prejudice, which leads to discrimination. And that leads to "separateness." Whether it originates in hate, fear or pity, the results can be devastating.

For example, a friend of mine happens to walk with the help of crutches, and sometimes she uses a scooter to get around. She also happens to have two master’s degrees and has traveled the country as a speaker and trainer. She has a husband, two cats and a busy career. Her life is quite full and happy, and she is uninterested in either being pitied or being called inspirational.

Quite by accident, she found herself at a local recreational event on a day that had been set aside for "people with special needs," or as one event worker called it, “handicapped day.” To her horror, many vendors treated her like a toddler, discounted her purchases and said they would pray for her.

Imagine, if you will, how such treatment might be received by a mom or dad who had a disability taking children out for a fun family day. Suddenly, mom isn’t cool; she’s an embarrassment. Or maybe one of the kids has an obvious disability that causes the guy running the ride to unnecessarily deny access to a ride. Dad gets upset and takes everybody home, and the other kids resent their sibling.

Perhaps those who established "special days" were hoping to minimize these types of situations when they decided to set up a separate and distinct event. But these good intentions perpetuate exclusion, rather than promote inclusion. We encourage them to revisit this concept and instead take steps to maximize full access for all, all of the time.

Teresa Torres is executive director of Everybody Counts. The opinions are the writer's.

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