Talk to Us; Disabilities Don't Make People Inanimate Objects

It used to surprise people at times when my 3-year-old would order for herself in a restaurant. It was important to me to teach all my children to speak for themselves, rather than be spoken about o

It used to surprise people at times when my 3-year-old would order for herself in a restaurant. It was important to me to teach all my children to speak for themselves, rather than be spoken about or around like inanimate objects. My own encounters with being the center of such inappropriate interaction led me long ago to the conviction that speaking for yourself is vital.

"Would she like the light blue or the dark?" a clerk once asked my college roommate about my preference in jeans.

"She would like to see what you have," said I, reaching for the pair of brand-name pants in her hands.

The insult is one commonly recognized by people with visible disabilities. If you're in a wheelchair, have a guide dog, walk with an unsteady gait or use a magnifier to see a menu or read price tags, those accompanying you will often be asked to read your mind.

For years, I thought this was just a "blind thing," reserved for those of us who have difficulty making eye contact. I was wrong. All you have to do is take an aging parent or a child under 12 shopping, and you'll see what I mean.

"Bring her over here," you are told. "Have him sit there. ... Would he like cream for his coffee?"

Sometimes there is humor lurking in these awkward moments. Years ago I was in a Canadian yarn shop with my husband, looking for materials for a crochet project for the road. He was beginning to tell me about some color options when a sales representative intervened.

"Does she like lavender?" she asked him.

"I don't know," he said, holding the skein of wool to my nose and pretending to sign.

"Mmmm, lavender," I announced, taking my cue. "It smells lovely."

He picked up another and whispered its color name in my ear.

I inhaled. "Ivory!" I exclaimed. "It's great."

Silliness is sometimes the only way to avoid the sting of insult. I mean, if a waitress comes up to a table where two people are engaged in animated conversation, why would she assume that only the one who isn't sitting in the wheelchair is able to talk? But she does. It happens all the time.

You take your 80-year-old father to the symphony, where he has been going for some 60 years, and the usher tells you where to "put" him, asks you if he'd like a program. Probably this man has been speaking, without hesitation, for himself for decades, but now that he doesn't hear well or is leaning on a walker he has somehow lost public permission to state his own preferences.

It might seem a trivial matter, but when you are talked about in the third person the message is a clear one of being discounted, irrelevant, secondary to the situation. Whether you receive this message because you have a disability, are a child, are from another country or have attained the age of wisdom, the impact is the same.

I taught my children to order food for themselves because it is a simple way of building confidence, practicing the lesson that "I matter, and so does what I have to say."

You can make a difference if you find yourself playing any of the three roles in this commonplace scenario.

If you are the outsider, speak to the person who is different — older, younger, disabled, foreign — with the assumption that he or she will respond.

If you are the companion of the visibly different individual, simply smile and say, "Ask him" or "Tell him" to move the dialogue in the appropriate direction.

If you are the person being discounted for disability or any other reason, assert yourself. Answer the question, pick up the conversation on your own — or, for quick understanding, try talking about yourself in the third person: "She wants ... He is looking for ..."

You might get a laugh, and chances are pretty good you'll be counted back into the circle.

contact Deborah Kendrick: letters(at)

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