International Day for People with a Disability logo

Carparks bring out the best and worst in people. Most carparks thoughtfully leave special parking spaces for people who are disabled. Most people respect them. But others without a disability often squat in the reserved places. And people who can walk only short distances, but have no outward signs of disability, are sometimes abused when they park there.

Many people identify disability with physical markers, such as a plaster cast, a wheelchair, crutches or a walking frame. They assume that people without any of these things are able-bodied and should be able to care for themselves without assistance.

Of course this view is mistaken. We may suffer from disabling migraines, deafness, mental illnesses, phobia, motor neurone diseases and other conditions that prevent us from participating in many of life’s activities, but are not seen by the casual observer. They cause as much suffering as more visible disabilities and need just as much resilience and courage to live with.

In our relationships with people with disabilities it is especially important to focus on the person and not on the disability. If we are preoccupied with the disability, we are more likely to be embarrassed, avoid meeting the person, speak loudly to people who hear well, and insist on helping people in ways they don’t need or want. When we focus on the person who is disabled we can be interested in them as people, ask them if we can be helpful to them in any way, and look out for them. That is why we mark this week’s International Day as one of People with Disability.

Good words help good attitudes. So rather than speaking of the blind, the deaf, the disabled or of prisoners, it is better to speak of people who blind, deaf, disabled or in prison. Once we put people into boxes, it becomes easier to ignore or even mistreat them. Governments speak of asylum seekers as problems and adopt brutal measures to deal with them. To call them people who seek protection from us invites us to respond to them as human beings.

People with disabilities flourish when they are respected as people. When we respect people we come to include them in our lives and among our friends, and help them flourish. To identify people simply with their celebrity, skills, their wealth, their poverty or their disability is lacking in respect. We mistake the saddlecloth for the horse.

This is true of Governments and their agencies as well as of individuals. The test of any government is the way it attends to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable of its people. So the making of policy and its administration must be based in respect for people as human beings, not simply as categories.

Respect means consulting people about their needs and meeting people where they are. In our work at Jesuit Social Services we meet many people with intellectual disabilities, with various forms of mental illness and with physical disabilities. They need assistance in many areas that come under different government departments. It can be confusing and alienating for them to be sent from office to office. Respect in this case suggests that they should be accompanied by a single person with whom they can build a relationship and who can coordinate their services.

This example shows how important advocacy is for people with disabilities, not simply to meet the special needs of individuals, but also to ensure that they can benefit from the services that are provided for them. That, too, is part of paying them respect.

3 December 2015