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Disabled: The Invisible Minority

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One of those great pop psychology sayings that’s making the rounds a lot these days is that anger is actually grief in disguise. Maybe that’s what is meant by someone giving you grief when they piss you off? I don’t know. But if there is any truth to that sentiment, then I must be feeling one hell of a lot of sadness over the way people with disabilities are treated.

Actually saying that I’m angry (or grieving, insert which ever you prefer, I’m going to stick with anger – what feeling like ripping someone a new one has to do with crying I haven’t quite figured out yet) over the way disabled people are treated isn’t quite accurate. It implies that people actually consider the disabled when they make decisions. The truth of the matter seems to be that disabled people don’t even merit any thought.

Oh sure, you’ll see the occasional wheelchair ramp to get into a building, or handicapped parking (two spots out of three hundred, and they are usually occupied by someone who’s just stopped in for a second so didn’t think it would matter that they used the handicap spot), and even Braille numbers in elevators (if a blind person doesn’t know they’re there in the first place how are they going to “see” them to use them?).

But quite frankly that’s just like fancy wood veneer covering rotten wood. There’s nothing of substance underneath that façade of caring. Somehow or other the disabled manage to slip off most people’s radar screens when they talk of minorities. Maybe it’s because disabilities don’t limit themselves to any one group of people. They have the best affirmative action program going. There is no convenient label to stick on ability discrimination like there is for race, sex, and religion.

Maybe I’ve just put my finger on the problem. With no label, people are lost. How can there be systemic discrimination against people with disabilities if there is not a catchy word for it? Hell, they even have one now for discriminating against people due to their age. If you can’t accuse somebody of something like abilityism than you may as well not even bother trying to point out the problem.

Does that sound a little cynical and sarcastic? Well, it’s hard not to be sometimes in the face of what’s encountered on a daily basis by people with disabilities that able-bodied people probably don’t even have to think about.

Here’s one for you; what do you do with your cane when you go out for dinner? You can’t leave it at the coat check (if there is one) because you’re going to need it to get to the bathroom (up or down a flight of stairs). Which leaves what? Propping it against the table where it can fall down and trip waiters. Laying it on the floor under the table where it’s not very accessible and easily stepped on?

That may not seem like a big deal but it’s just one more extra thing that disabled people have to concern themselves with. It’s those little things that really add up and end up being the most frustrating. You’ve already had to adapt to so many new ways of doing things on a personal level, that finding out there’s no recognition of the difficulties faced when you’re in a supposedly public venue makes you feel like people would have been happier if you’d just stayed at home.

Have you ever watched an elderly person trying to negotiate one of those so-called access ramps with a walker? Going up isn’t so bad, even though the incline is a little severe. It’s the coming down that always looks so precarious. I swear it looks like they’re about to fall half the time because of how quick the ramp speed becomes. Some of them look like they’ve been designed by the same folk who make the ski jumps for the Olympics.

I suppose you can’t really blame the private sector for its attitude; it takes its cues from the government and the way it treats disabled people. As far as I can tell, the disabled seem to be viewed by many levels of government as just another means for collecting revenue.

A few years ago the government of Ontario enacted some new legislation for the benefit of disabled people. While there were some monies set aside for what they call programming (occupational therapy jobs like stuffing envelopes for minimum wage), the major focus of it was to increase fines for illegal use of handicapped facilities. There were no monies put into assisting with the day-to-day cost of surviving.

In Ontario, the income support program for disabled people (Ontario Disability Support Payments or O.D.S.P.) had been frozen since 1993 without an increase. In the winter of 2005 a 3% increase was finally approved. That may sound all right, but consider that landlords were allowed to increase rents by 2.9% that year and all of a sudden the increase has vanished.

It’s not even as if it were going to be a regular cost of living increase either; just a one time deal to make it look like the government was more compassionate than its predecessor. Of course a lot of people would probably have to use their left over .1% to pay for physiotherapy costs that were no longer going to be covered by provincial health insurance.

Just to show that they’re no slouches in ignoring the disabled either, the federal government got into the act. Just before the election was called, all four parties got together to work out a deal so as to fast track legislation through the House to get people on fixed incomes a heating fuel rebate.

These one-time checks were to help offset the extraordinary heating fuel costs that had come about this winter due to Katrina and other circumstances. Somehow they seemed to forget that disabled people are on fixed incomes. They only designated seniors surviving on government pensions, and parents who were poor enough to receive a special child benefit check as being eligible for this assistance.

Maybe they thought disabled people don’t get as cold as other people? Like if the have nerve damage or something, they can’t feel their extremities anyway, so what do they need heat for? Ah well, if worse comes to worse we can always have a bonfire with our crutches and canes. I don’t know – would firewood be considered an aid for living like one of those bars in the bathtub you can use to climb in and out with? If so, then we could apply to the government to pay for it through programming.

What I find really puzzling about the whole situation of ignoring disabled people is how they can miss us. Most disabled people come with some sort of accompanying props: crutches, canes, walkers, and wheelchairs are the ones most commonly seen. You’d think that would make it easier to notice that disabled people exist.

But it actually seems to work in reverse. It’s amazing how few people notice either a wheelchair or the fact that somebody inhabits it. I’ve seen people literally lean against the back of a wheelchair, not even aware that they are pretty much sitting on somebody’s back. Or wait patiently while a person struggles with pulling a door open because their hands are occupied with a cane and parcels, and not realize they could use some help.

If I were to use this behaviour as a yardstick for people’s awareness of the disabled in general, I guess it should be no surprise that governments seem to overlook our existence as well. At least the general public and the private sector make no claims to the contrary and I’ve seen enough individuals go out of their way in an attempt to help and assist people to compensate for those who ignore us.

The hardest part of making the transition from being able-bodied to being disabled is learning to accept your limitations. Until you reach that point of acceptance you are in a state of perpetual frustration. Even then you are continually chafed by the restrictions imposed upon you by a body that’s betraying you.

This is not a state of mind conducive to an even temper and forgiveness on most days. When this is compounded by the attitudes displayed by all levels of government, and by a good chunk of society, I think I do a remarkably good job of keeping my temper in check. Of course I notice they don’t have handicapped elevators or ramps leading up to bell towers…

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Nancy

    The parking lot thing is what always gets me. How is it that the disabled spaces are always ‘way far away from the nearest entrances? They’re almost always “conveniently” located squarely equidistant from all the doors, and therefore equally inconvenient for those who need them. Obviously, someone who has no troubles moving about designed these. And don’t get me going about those who use HP spaces ‘just for a second’, or hang up one of the temporary cardboard tags legitimately used by a family member, and then leap out, obviously in the best of health! I’m mean & small-minded enough to wish on those assholes that someday they NEED an HP space – and there won’t be one because some asshole has taken the one they need. I’m lucky: most days I can move around OK & anyway it does me good to move my fat butt the extra few yards, but I do feel for the elderly or really, honestly HP I watch painfully crutching or inching along with their walkers past the spots occupied by ignorant, selfish jerks.

  • I’ve been blind since birth, and I’m now a freshman at college. It’s great to know that people such as yourself are mindful of these issues. I think I speak for the majority of the blind community at least when I say that we don’t want preferrential treatment, handouts, or an inside track to all of life’s glories. We just want a level playing field. Some situations are very accommodating of lack of vision. Some others are less accessible. And the best way to make progress on that front is through awareness. So seeing posts such as this are appreciated.

  • i have read your blog several times. i am onof the invisible persons you mentioned. i dont appear handicapped when i am standing still.. when iam walking or using stairs it is obvious.or wehen my defibrillator shocks me. then people notice me. i am pleased that you have noticed some of situations we run into.the walker and the cane do present a situation, what do i do with this in coffee shops,you are correct with the parking spots,they are not close to the entrances.people have watched me struggle opening doors. i have heart disease,joints pinned together. i do admit that the people who use the electric grocerycarts are very arrogant in the stores to the point of being rude

  • apparently we are still invisible.

  • rh

    I have a neuromuscular disease which varies greatly in what level of disability I have at any particular point in time. It is invisible in the sense that there are still people I’ve known for years who make a comment about “hurt your leg?” when I limp.

    As for parking spots, the worst part is that others seem to think that blocking a handicapped spot is somehow okay, yet they won’t pull into a spot for fear of a ticket! I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people parked on the blue diagonal lines, effectively blocking two parking spots instead of just taking up one. Do they think a cop would say “okay, as long as you’re not in a spot”?