NOTE: Previous published as an Op-Ed piece in the Ocala Star Banner. Original can be seen here.
October is National Disability Awareness Month. The focus has traditionally been on raising awareness about persons with disabilities, focusing on the needs for employment for persons with disabilities and improving awareness of the need for full accessibility for persons with disabilities.
Nearly 20 percent of people in the U.S. have a disability. That is one in five, making those with disabilities the largest minority population in the U.S. It also is one of the few minority groups you can join at any time.
Here are some myths about people with disabilities that need to be busted and understood:
■ People with disabilities tend to be sickly. Wrong. Most people with disabilities are healthy. Although some disabilities are the result of illness, the disability itself is not an illness. Oftentimes, the disability is not a medical condition at all. Many researchers and advocates now say that the medical model should no longer be used when dealing with those who have a disability. Rather than finding a cure, acceptance is the better way to deal with them.
■ People with disabilities should be, or want to be, admired. I know a woman who has said, “Do not admire me. The desire to live a full life does not warrant adoration. Respect me, for respect presumes equity.”
■ People with disabilities live completely different lives than the nondisabled. While, in some cases, their lives may be different, the reality is that people with disabilities want the same things everyone else wants. They want to be included, to have a job, a spouse or significant other, family and friends. They want to live an independent life.
■ You should help someone with a disability when out in the public. We all need assistance from time to time. However, do not assume someone with a disability needs or wants your help. People with disabilities value their independence like anyone else.
■ People with disabilities are more comfortable with “their own kind.” That is completely false. Like anyone else, people with disabilities are people and have or should have friends who are similar to themselves as well as friends who are different.
■ People with disabilities need friends. While loneliness and isolation often are the result of living with a disability, they do not want random friends. As one person with a disability told me, “People should not walk up to me and assume they are my friend. Get to know me. We may become friends.”
■ All people with hearing disabilities can read lips. Some can read lips, and many do not. Do not assume they can read your lips.
■ People who are blind develop a sixth sense. Often people who are blind or sight-impaired develop their other senses more than you or I, but they do not have an uncanny or special sixth sense.
■ Wheelchairs confine or limit the activities of a person with a disability. Most people who use a wheelchair do not consider themselves wheelchair bound. It is just a way for the person to easily get around.
■ The only real service animals are seeing eye or guide dogs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.
■ Service animals need to wear a vest or other identification. The ADA does not require a special vest or identification. Some service animals may be equipped with a harness because of the service they provide their owner.
The important thing to remember is that people with disabilities are people first. They are not their disability, and even though their disability may impact their life, their disability does not define them. Like everyone, they have likes and dislikes. They have faults and strengths. They have dreams and aspirations. They have successes and failures.
Be aware during Disability Awareness Month of those who have disabilities around you. Keep that awareness alive all year by remembering that those with disabilities simply want to live an independent life like anyone else.