September is an exciting month in disability circles as Casual Day, the largest fundraising campaign for persons with disabilities is held annually on the first Friday in September. The year’s theme is “Be an Everyday Hero!” But what does that really mean?
It’s natural to see someone with an impairment, and then imagine their limitations and barriers and want to provide assistance. Our approach to be helpful, however, is not always in line with the definition of dignity and inclusion.
A close friend of mine has been a person with an impairment since the age of 18. Yet with the support of his family and friends – who did not focus on his limitations – my friend grew to be a community leader, guest speaker and accountant. He lives on his own, drives, travels, and many other everyday tasks. He believes in Stephen Hawking’s suggestion –
“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”
On first meeting my friend, it would be easy to assume huge limitations and barriers in his world, but that would discredit his human dignity. He’s intelligent and energetic. If you spend a little time with him and his impairment, the limitations, barriers and disability “disappears.” It is sometimes difficult to know how to act around persons with impairments. When we observe limitations and barriers, we can sometimes inaccurately assume we need to “lead and guide” interaction from a place of sympathy, when all he needs is opportunity and reasonable accommodation.
To be an everyday hero is to include and empower people with impairments on an equal basis – this creates a definition of equity in the world that begins with approaching them as the people they are. The most important thing to know when interacting with people with impairments is that they are people. And just like all people, they are very different and have specific needs. Disability is imposed by society when the society fails to uphold the rights of persons with physical, sensory, neurological, intellectual and/or psychosocial impairments. To be a hero is to eliminate the physical, communication, attitudinal & information barriers in society that still exist.
An inclusive approach is treating people with impairments the way you would anyone else. Let them lead the way by defining how and when support would be appreciated. Ask what kind of language they prefer in reference to themselves, and remember that their identity extends beyond the impairment and disability. For example, terms not to use are “confined to a wheelchair”, “cripple”, etc. Rather use a term like “persons with impairments” or “disabilities”. Above all, appropriately interaction with people with impairments stems from not making assumptions; then, discovering how and in what way the person appreciates support and inclusion. I learned not to anticipate how to help my friend. He asks for assistance where and when necessary – I didn’t need to hover around trying to predict how I could be helpful. An essential element in this process is openness to learning who the person is beyond the impairment. This is the approach and identity of an everyday hero.
Regardless of the impairment of persons with disabilities, we all share the human experience. People presume that my impairment/disability has all to do with being a deaf person. But that’s not the real issue; our insecurities are our impairments. There is more common ground than not, among all human beings disabled by society. We are every day hero’s when we think about another person more than we think about ourselves; together we are strong and together we can sensitise society to treat all people with dignity, including persons with impairments that are disabled by society.
Treating someone with dignity means offering respect. Rather than focussing on what can make us feel uncomfortable around a person with an impairment.
In my opinion, this is what an everyday hero is all about!!
* Please click here for additional information on correct terminology.
** Fanie has profound hearing loss and makes use of bilateral cochlear implants. He is a specialist on hearing impairment and deaf affairs at the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities and hosts an educational radio program “Leefwêreld van die Gestremde on Radio Sonder Grense on Sundays at 17H30.