Disability is a Matter of Perception

By: Shira Perton  |  August 27, 2018

By Shira Perton

As I helped her back into her bed, she looked at me and said, “I don’t like it when she works; she doesn’t treat us right; you know, we’re people too.”

We’re people too.

That statement, three seemingly obvious words. Yet, when this elderly woman said it to me in the direct care facility in which I work, I froze. It made me think: There are so many moments in our lives when we disregard the crucial fact that people are people, especially when it comes to working with those who are disabled, yet this key concept of humanity is often not considered.

In the past, society was far from kind to people with disabilities. Before the 1930s, they were viewed as defective and were usually abandoned by their families. By the mid-1950s, there were about 550,000 patients that were institutionalized throughout America. Usually those patients were placed in care against their will because of the burdens their conditions placed on their families. Patients were more often than not subject to abuse and neglect, deprived of essential necessities, and were put through many therapies that were not unsafe and negligent. It is only recently that multiple organizations have begun to defend the rights of those with disabilities in order to better their lives. But have we been doing enough?

All of these improvements seem great, yet there still seems to be a problem of people treating those with disabilities without the respect that they deserve. The basic human rights we all are accustomed to are described as the “rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death.” These rights include dignity, fairness, respect and equality. On an external level, it is easy to avoid a person that looks different than us, and it starts when we are young.

My grandmother used to tell me that my siblings would avoid her because she looked foreign to them with her white hair, wrinkles, and age spots. We are hesitant when we see homeless people because we are faced with uncertainty and unfamiliarity. It is only natural that when presented with people with disabilities we would be a little hesitant at first, yet once the discomfort has settled for both parties, we should look past each other’s capabilities and move forward in developing an appreciation for each other’s personalities. Somehow what often happens in these facilities is that the patient’s feelings and needs are disregarded in order to make the time spent working easier, while at the same time, the needs of the patient become a joke and are usually laughed at by others.

Of course, the job is not glamorous; most jobs are not. I once worked in an ice cream store–cute, right? Picture cleaning up gallons of frozen yogurt that melted out of a machine–not so cute anymore. This is something that happens when working with individuals with special needs; we find people that look cute, spend an hour with them and take a Facebook profile picture. Yet we do not see the trials of daily life: the mornings spent trying futilely to put clothes on, the anxiety, screaming, bathroom trips, changing clothes again, and forgetfulness. It’s hard work, of course, yet there is a fine line between needing a break and de-stressing by making fun of things a person cannot control. When I smile, my eyes squint a little, so much so that at one of my sibling’s weddings my father exclaimed in front of everyone “Shira, stop closing your eyes!” Yes, it’s funny, but it’s also something that I can’t control, and to feel like that’s not appreciated as part of my persona is difficult. We all have tendencies like that, certain things that make us the people that we are that we have no control over.

When it comes to working in special care facilities, the fact that a person is there does not mean that they are not aware of how they are being treated. Regardless of whatever hinders their everyday lives, they are capable of emotions and knowing when they are not being treated properly. Ever since I can remember I was taught to “treat others how you would like to be treated”: it is what we all expect of each other. When this elderly woman looked at me and reminded me of that crucial fact, “we are humans too,” she reiterated such a crucial detail in our everyday lives: an individual is still a human being regardless of his or her abilities and external looks. Disability is a matter of perception in that when we choose how to see beyond an individual’s abilities or looks, we are able to break down a wall and create a meaningful relationship. When we enter our jobs, whether it be full-time, part-time, or volunteering, we have an opportunity to look past our discomfort and create a more meaningful experience for both you and the individual.