At the beginning of my undergraduate career, I decided to close my piano servicing business. The last client that I took on was an older gentleman who had a very fine Yamaha C2 grand piano that he wanted me to work on. As soon as I entered his living room and opened the piano, I started to check out the tone and look for any discordance between the strings to determine with my tuning fork if the piano was sharp or flat. Seeing me wearing a pair of brown sunglasses, the gentleman said, “Aha! I am glad they sent a blind man to tune my piano. But the gentleman on the phone yesterday did not tell me you were blind.” Then, seeing the confusion in my face, he added, “It’s a good thing. All the blind people have perfect pitch, which means my piano will be perfectly tuned.”
I politely explained to him that I had been the person on the phone the previous day, and that being visually impaired does not automatically grant people perfect or absolute pitch. We continued our conversation and he said that people who were visually impaired, as far as he knew, had to have a sixth sense or else they would be unable to survive, and that they were special people. Despite my attempts to convince him otherwise, it felt as if I were beating a dead horse. He was convinced that maybe I might not be like that, but other people he had encountered with disabilities had that sixth sense. After a while, I finally asked him how many people with disabilities he had interacted with, and he couldn’t remember – he guessed maybe one or two.
This personal experience often makes me wonder why members of society perceive those who live with a disability as either special, dependent, needy, or, in some cultures, being punished for past misdeeds. One possible explanation is that humans are naturally curious, and if we have no way of explaining or understanding the reason why something happened, we formulate explanations that fit into our world view. The experience that I described with my client synchronizes with one of the points brought up in an essay by Laurie Block, “Stereotypes About People with Disabilities.” Block explains that, in some people’s belief, “[a] person with a disability will be compensated for his/her lack by greater abilities and strengths in other areas – abilities that are sometimes beyond the ordinary.”
Stereotypes held by some members of society trigger the belief that those who live with a physical or cognitive condition were placed on Earth to somehow benefit others, to give them a mission or to inspire them to be more kind or less selfish. Given their condition, Laurie Block adds, people with disabilities may be seen as “holy innocents endowed with special grace.” On the surface, such beliefs do not necessarily appear harmful; they may seem intended to protect people with disabilities. On a more profound level, however, these beliefs take away the independence of people with disabilities and convince them that they are not strong or capable enough, and they prevent the rest of society from interacting with these people like they would with any other individual.
To illustrate, in his book, Disabled We Stand, Allan T. Sutherland describes examples where people with disabilities have been given unsolicited and unnecessary assistance by strangers who believed they were being helpful. For instance, people with visual impairments have been led across streets that did not help them to reach their destinations, which might have the actual result of making them late for an appointment or making them miss a bus or train.
In one anecdote, a woman climbed a long staircase in the New York subway using her crutches, and as she stopped to catch her breath, “some well-meaning cavalier materialized out of the crowd, grabbed her up and carried her down to the bottom again.”
Such stories reveal that members of society need to educate themselves so that they can view those with a physical or cognitive condition as independent, fully capable individuals who may just need a little assistance sometimes. Making the decision to help without their consent sends the message that they are incapable of getting what they want or need for themselves.
There is not enough space in this blog to enumerate all of the stereotypes that society projects onto its members who live with a disability. Nevertheless, I believe that those who fight against inequality have a responsibility to educate others that those who live with certain conditions may need a helping hand, but that doesn’t imply that they are not independent or cannot contribute to society.
After reading this blog, when you interact with a person who has a physical condition, make an effort to communicate with that person just as you would communicate with other individuals. When you see someone in a wheelchair or with a white cane or crutches traveling with someone else, if you need to interact with that person, do not assume that the one who is traveling with them is a helper and that you must address yourself to that person; instead, address the person directly. This will show courtesy and convey that you respect the person with a disability and value their communication with you.
These simple interactions are how prejudices begin to disappear, and every individual should make it their mission to educate themselves on how to interact with those who live with a physical or cognitive condition instead of letting stereotypes inform their actions and opinions.
“Those who fight against inequality have a responsibility to educate others that those who live with certain conditions may need a helping hand, but that doesn’t imply that they are not independent or cannot contribute to society.”
Posted By Wilson Charles
Posted Aug 13th, 2020