Joe Elliott: Disabled folks deserve our respect and support

Citizen Times Guest Columnist - Joe Elliot 
Date: March 18, 2018

“Remember to look up at the stars.” Stephen Hawking

March is recognized nationally as Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, the goal of which is to help increase public awareness about both the needs and capabilities of Americans with developmental disabilities.

Anyone who has spent much time around someone with a developmental disability knows how special the experience can be. Their presence in a family, for instance, often provides its own unique rewards and insights.

I know this, having myself grown up with an older sister who was severely developmentally disabled, commonly referred to back in the day as mental retardation.

In the past there were a lot of mistaken beliefs about people like my late sister, some so obviously absurd as not to even deserve mention here. And while many of the most specious misconceptions have been largely dispelled over the last 30 years or so, others tend to persist.

Every family of a disabled person of any variety can provide his or her own list (of myths), but here are a few of my own.

To begin with, "people with developmental disabilities are almost all alike." Having had a sibling with this condition, as well as some professional experience of my own working with the population, I can tell you this simply isn’t true. The intellectually disabled have distinctive personalities just like everyone else. They have their likes and dislikes, their moods, opinions, favorite foods and movies, just like everybody else.

Another myth: "people with developmental disabilities can’t learn new things." My own sister Mattie disproved this when in her maturity she began working fulltime at Foothill Industries in Marion, a job she loved and took great proud in performing. She took on several new work tasks, all of which, I might add, she succeeded in admirably.

Next myth: "most developmentally disabled people tend to be violent and lack self-control." Not as I ever observed. While some do suffer with certain issues that may at moments make them a little more involuntarily moody or volatile, as was the case with my sister, most of these can be successfully treated today with proper diet and medication.

Lastly, "people with developmental disabilities are always a heavy burden to their families." Having a member of the family with special needs requires certain adjustments and accommodations if that person is to live a full, meaningful life. However, the rewards usually far outweigh the drawbacks.

Having Mattie as a sister, for instance, ranks among the most gratifying (and fun) experiences of my life. We grew up together, in a sense, though she was several years older than me. We sometimes got into playful tussles just to see who could outdo the other in strength and wrestling skills. She wasn’t above employing dirty tricks to secure a win and would sometimes pin me to the floor by the hair of my head until I said uncle.

She loved parties and eagerly looked forward each year to the holiday outings sponsored by the local Lions Club of Marion. She loved people in general and had a way of putting them at their ease. She sometimes got so tickled about something she would laugh until she cried. She could also on occasion let fly with a string of very colorful expletives, reserving a certain choice (unprintable) epithet just for me.

I never really thought of Mattie as “different” from others. Of course I knew she had a disability, including partial blindness, but none of that mattered to me. She was my sister and we loved each other very much.

My only wish growing up was that others could see Mattie as I saw her. Those who took the time to look beyond the surface were always rewarded by the realization that here was a wonderful, funny, loving, kind human being. She never wanted anyone’s pity and had little patience with those who approached her in this way. Instead, what she wanted was the opportunity to contribute something of value, including her work and thoughts, and to have a circle friends — the same things you and I want.

I have no doubt this is also the wish of most families of the physically and/or developmentally disabled. We each can assist in seeing that these things happen, first by simply being more open and welcoming of the presence of the disabled among us. Upon encountering such an individual, treat them with the same courtesy and respect you would anyone else. In other words, don’t patronize them or treat them like they don’t have good sense.

When speaking to them, speak to them, not at or around them. In turn, listen to them when they reply. Just because they may struggle with the language doesn’t mean they have nothing worthwhile or meaningful to communicate.

We can all be active in promoting and defending the rights of all disabled people, including the developmentally disabled. This includes the right to work and participate fully in society.

In many ways the biggest handicap disabled people labor under are the labels we put on them. As Robert M. Hensel, the wheel-chair “wheelie” world champion, put it: “there is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more.”

Joe Elliott lives in Arden.

>>  View the full article on the Citizen Times Website