COMMENT: ‘Many people with disabilities are limited by society rather than by their particular condition’

Posted on December 02, 2019

The International Day for Persons with Disabilities aims to increase public awareness, understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities, and celebrate their achievements and contributions.

Disability does not discriminate – it could take the form of a woman born with a visual impairment, a young man who’s lost his leg in a motorbike accident, a father paralysed from the waist down after a taxi accident, a grandmother with arthritis in her hands, her friend with dementia, your neighbour, your child.

“Disability” is an umbrella term for temporary or permanent impairments and the limitations that accompany them, which make it difficult for those with various conditions to participate in daily activities like work, leisure, getting dressed, eating and getting from place to place.

The focus of International Day for Persons with Disabilities, though, is on ability rather than disability.

Many people with disabilities are limited by society rather than by their particular condition. Environmental and attitudinal barriers are often what restrict them from participating in activities or carrying out basic functions. These can include anything from potholes that make it impossible for someone in a wheelchair to get to work and negative attitudes of co-workers towards a person that uses a communication device to speak, to stigmatising a colleague or fellow student who has mental health problems and employing negative language when referring to those who look different.

We need to transform and make our minds “disability accessible”. When interacting with people with disabilities, keep the following in mind:

  • Treat others as you would like to be treated.
  • Show respect.
  • Don’t be patronising.
  • Don’t call people with disabilities pet names or pat their heads as you would a dog.
  • Don’t lean on their wheelchair – it is not your property.
  • Don’t talk louder and slower – not all people with disabilities are deaf and/or have cognitive impairments.
  • Avoid terms such as “retard”, “cripple”, “moron” or “midget”. It is disrespectful.
  • Speak directly to the person; don’t look past them by speaking to their friends, family or carer.
  • Be patient. Some people who have a disability need more time to comprehend and translate their thoughts into speech.
  • Put yourself in their shoes and try to empathise with the barriers they experience.
  • Don’t be afraid to interact – disability is not contagious.

Professor Kitty Uys is Head of the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Health Sciences.

- Author Professor Kitty Uys

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