by Martha Bagley
From the Editor: The following editorial first appeared in the Fall, 1997, issue of RE:view, the quarterly newsletter of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). Martha Bagley is Coordinator of the Older Adult Program for the Helen Keller National Center, Dallas regional office. She also serves as an Executive Editor of RE:view. It is not often that we agree whole-heartedly with the views expressed by the AER, but this is certainly one time when we do. Ms. Bagley has a healthy respect for the consumers with whom she works, and she puts her finger on important issues for consideration by every professional working with disabled people. We can only hope that other AER members will reflect on her words and be guided by her good sense. This is what she says:
Have you ever been called a saint? It used to happen to me regularly. Every time I was picked up by a cab at the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point, New York, the driver would eventually say something like, "You must be a saint to work with those people. It is so amazing what they can do."
Those of you who know me will readily attest to the fact that I am no saint! Like all of us, I come to work every day and try to do the best that I can with the tools and resources available. Sometimes I manage really well; at other times nothing seems to go right. So, if I'm not a saint, does that mean that the people with disabilities with whom I work are not amazing?
The print and TV media have called Christopher Reeve a miracle because he has gotten on with his life despite his accident and severe disability. Is this just another example of the news media's quest for a story and publicity hype that surrounds stars? Maybe, but it isn't going away. Every time Chris Reeve does something that would be expected of anyone else in his profession, he is described as "amazing."
That attitude crops up even closer to home. Recently someone working in an agency that serves people who are blind commented to a professional who is deaf-blind, "I just can't understand how you are able to get up every day and do the things you do."
What generates this attitude of amazement? Why shouldn't people who are deaf-blind or who have other severe disabilities do the things that we take for granted in everyone else? Why is it amazing that they get up and go to work every day? Why is it amazing that they can use a cab? Why is it amazing that they fall in love and get married? Why is it amazing that they go to school and get an education? Those things are not just expected, but assumed, of everyone.
Are individuals with deaf-blindness and other disabilities somehow lesser people? To some degree this amazement is everywhere. It comes from an attitude that these people are unlike us and limited in their abilities; therefore, it is okay to expect less of them. Indeed we should expect less from them.
It is time for us not only to stop expecting less from people with disabilities, but to stop rewarding them for doing what everyone is expected to do as a full member of society. Let's not give them just the right to an accessible voting place but also the responsibility to go and vote.
How can our services help people with disabilities if our personal expectations are that only the amazing among our clients and students will be able to do what we take for granted in people without disabilities? In a way it is amazing that people with disabilities ever overcome those beliefs about themselves.
We need to eradicate that attitude from our profession and also to set the world straight. Expect people with disabilities to do. Expect them to use your cab, rent your apartment, come into your store. Be prepared to accommodate them just as you would any good customer.
We should save our amazement for something really appropriate. We need to look at people with disabilities as being basically like everyone else. Yes, sometimes they need our help, but most of us could use help from time to time. Underneath their infinite variety, human beings are the same with the same needs, desires, and dreams. If we truly see the value in all people, we will cease to be amazed when they show their individual worth.
Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation, from RE:view, Volume 29, number 3, Fall, 1997, published by Heldref Publications 1319 18th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-1802.