Treating People with Disabilities with Dignity

This week’s post takes a look at the question, should we treat those with disabilities with dignity? Last year I wrote a piece offering my thoughts on this very important matter. This is a topic that we still should discuss so I figured I would post my opinion here.

Last July, an amazing website, lomah.org featured a podcast about this topic and welcomed feedback. This is long, but definitely worth a listen. Before reading my thoughts, I would suggest you take a look at this amazing article written by Nicole Feeney, who I mention in my response piece.

In this week’s post you will learn about some amazing people in my life, including a reader I had who inspired much of my work and some wonderful professors I had in college. I realize there are some new followers to my site. Thank you! If it seems as though I talk about people in multiple posts that is because it is true. This is not about saying so many nice comments about a group of people. I only speak the truth and we need to talk about negative experiences and amazing people to make the changes that are so desperately needed. Feel free to share your thoughts with me. Miranda ❤

Hi Kim,
My name is Miranda Oakley and I am a recent graduate of the University of Rhode Island with a BA in English. I was born three and a half months premature and as a result am totally blind with mild, unspecified processing issues. I am the first one in my family to graduate with a college degree. I am writing to you to offer my Christian perspective regarding your podcast about treating people with disabilities with dignity. I am rather passionate about this subject, so please forgive me if my response to you is long.

First I have to say I absolutely love Nicole’s article! Bless her for starting this much needed conversation. Bless you as well for having such an amazing website. You mentioned that this conversation should continue and can cover a variety of topics; I could not agree more. I would like to offer my opinion on a few points. The first subject I would like to address is the appearance of people with disabilities. Adults and especially children need to look like peers their own age. Whether we like it or not, we live in a society where your appearance determines if a person will talk to you. Even in college I found many students judged whether they would say hello based on what people look like. From the time I was little to my last year of college, my family took time to tell me how students look. They were good about helping me fit in while also allowing me to be my own person. It can be hard for people with unique needs and their families because as much as we put forth the effort to make a good first impression, students and professors often struggle to look past disabilities. I believe we need to keep putting our energy towards presenting people with disabilities with value because the more people see us being treated with respect, over time society will change. This may seem like a longshot, but I believe the more we address these issues we are helping change
society’s perception.

During your talk with Nicole, you brought up a very true point. You mentioned how people with disabilities are treated with disrespect out of convenience for the other person. I can tell you firsthand this is a reality I know all too well. One example that comes to mind is when I asked a student hired to assist me on campus to take me to the student union for some food. This student asked me if I could have what was in my refrigerator because it was raining and they didn’t want to be outside. If someone without a visual disability is in the mood for something different to eat, they can easily take themselves to where they want to go. To be frank, it really comes down to people being selfish.  My pastor told me once that we live in a microwave society where people do not like to wait and want everything moving at a fast pace. People with disabilities require extra time and force the person assisting them to think outside of themselves. It can be exhausting to put in extra effort, but the person assisting, whether they are a parent, a teacher, caregiver or a reader, needs to think about the perspective and feelings of everyone involved. All too often people do not stop to consider how their actions affect who they are
working with.

On the contrary, when we see people noticing the person before the disability, I believe it is our responsibility to use those individuals as examples for others. This being said, allow me to please introduce you to Amy, Ian and Tyler. Amy was an English professor who chose to accept my blindness and use my challenges for the benefit of our entire class. She explained to students that everyone can benefit from reading out loud; she instructed them to please consider me when reading materials.

Ian was my professor for courses I took on using Pro Tools software. In the six years I attended the University of Rhode Island, Ian was the only professor to encourage me to take visual courses. Throughout these audio courses I required much assistance and could do little for myself. Ian chose to focus on what I could do and to challenge me while being supportive. During one class we made microphones and Ian took time to let me feel each object and to make sure I understood what was going on. While these professors were welcoming, this was new to me. Often I was the student who took up too much of professor’s time. Until Ian, professors avoided finding ways to include me in courses that were particularly visual.

Tyler was a reader my final semester of college. He read material I did not have in an accessible format and served as my eyes and hands so I could complete my final audio class. He taught me a lot about respect and I feel it is crucial that others learn from my positive experience. In six years I worked with several students; Tyler focused on me as a person rather than just my blindness. We worked together three days a week and one of the days he worked with me for an hour. I include these details because students struggled to see past my challenges and therefore, only worked shifts where their pay would be worth it. In the beginning I was a little skeptical because no one had considered such a short block of time important before. Our first Monday turned into another, which turned into one more. Before I knew it, we were flying through the semester and Tyler was shaping what became new, normal expectations for me. People could argue that blindness with mild processing issues is nothing compared to someone with multiple physical disabilities, but at the end of the day, time is time. No matter how many disabilities a person has, everyone involved with them still deals with frustration and exhaustion. Whenever my friend with multiple disabilities would tell me about how horribly one of her staff treated her, I would always remind her of how much Tyler gave his time to me. We need to use this respectful example to show others here in the US and around the world that choosing dignity is always the right choice.

On the occasion when Tyler needed to leave early he would always ask for my permission. While this may seem like typical employee behavior, this was also new to me. Even students with good intentions never asked me such a question before. When students needed to leave early, they would tell me what they were doing rather than make sure I could make up the lost time. The first time Tyler asked for my permission I thought he must be asking because he was still new and often times we put our best self forward when we meet new people. It happened again and I realized that Tyler was creating what would become new standards for myself. I would encourage others to learn from this and use what I took away to raise the bar on how people with disabilities are treated. Let this serve as a reminder that people with disabilities are more than a paycheck. Dignity goes beyond handouts to be polite. Even if the person requiring assistance cannot speak, caregivers should acknowledge them for the person they are, not their disabilities. For me personally, any help I will require in the future will be based off of a few life lessons I learned from Tyler. It is important to remember that when we are treated with respect, exhaustion and frustration become less frequent and easier to work through. This then becomes a ripple effect because when the person with disabilities is treated correctly, everyone around them feels better.

I decided to share a piece of my story in hopes that it will keep the conversation going. On one hand it is sad that in 2017 we are having this discussion. On the other hand, we need to talk about those who chose to look past differences to teach others. I believe God put us on earth to uplift one another. I hope what I have shared here up lifts you, too. I believe dignity is a choice. I pray that the people mentioned here serve as an example to others that we in fact are changing perception. One person at a time.

Thank you for your time,
Miranda Oakley

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