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Please Stop Assuming a Person With a Disability Doesn't Understand You

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“I’m a T4 Paraplegic. I do more than almost everyone I know. I hunt, fish, quadbike ride, farm and do everything there is to do outdoors. When people doubt my capabilities, that is my drive to make me get out there and smash it. Best way to get me to do something is tell me I can’t.” — Jarard P.

Several years ago, someone gave my daughter — who has Down syndrome — a “Pingu” movie as a gift. I was thankful they had thought about my daughter and bought her a present. What I did not expect was the gifter then explaining they selected that particular movie because the characters don’t talk, and since my daughter had a speech delay and an intellectual disability, she would be able to follow the storyline as opposed to movies with dialogue. I was stunned — and quite honestly offended — by the reasoning. They presumed incompetence, hence the “thoughtful” gift.

When she was born, I was talking to someone about my fears, one of them being “she will get teased because she is different.” The person I was talking to said, “at least she will never be aware of it” — again, presuming incompetence even before we had left the hospital after her birth. My daughter is so sensitive. Her heart breaks with every hint of someone making fun of her. It breaks my heart, too.

“I was born missing my left hand and bullied horribly growing up to the point I developed PTSD. My teacher once told me if I made it less obvious that I had one hand, more people would like me. It took me a long time to get where I am today. I’m a college graduate, business manager of a magazine, married and a mother to a beautiful baby boy. No one should let ignorant people take their happiness or tell them they are less than they are. The differently abled are amazing people and deserve the same rights to follow our dreams as anyone else.” — Megan C.

A dance studio turned my daughter down because they did not believe she could keep up. They never met her or watched her dance. She was never given an opportunity simply because of her disability. They did not presume competence or believed me when I said she was a good dancer.

“I am a dancer. People used to think because I use a wheelchair and I am overweight that I don’t have talent. This is actually wrong. I do have talent. I even have a volunteer job with kids at a dance program.” — Alicia H.

The truth is, I’ve also been guilty of having low expectations for her. Guilty of not presuming competence. I’ve been surprised by her ability, when all along I should have been the first one to believe in her. Like the time I realized she could use a computer mouse or when I heard her in the back of the car, sounding out words and spelling them. Or when I seem to forget she is 10 years old, so I should treat her like a 10-year-old.

“My sweet boy was born without his feet, left hand and the tip of his tongue.  [We had] every worry you can imagine: how will he walk, will he be able to talk OK, how will he do every day tasks with one hand. He will be 2 in April and so far he can walk with or without prosthetics, he eats like he had both hands, he can take his shirt off by himself, do puzzles.” — Kimmy H.

I am her mother, and I know she has great potential. Although sometimes I have made the mistake of assuming she cannot do certain things, for the most part, I believe the sky is her limit. Her IQ does not determine who she is or what she is capable of. Only she determines what she can and cannot do. My job is simply to provide the supports she needs so she can reach her goals.

Yet she faces a world where most people do not presume competence. A world where people will talk to her as if she were a child, with condescending and patronizing attitudes meant to be “nice.” I am afraid the friends she has will be celebrated as “extraordinary” because they have befriended the kid with a disability and not because she is the friend who is funny and kind and fiercely loyal.

She lives in a world where ability to communicate verbally is directly related to intellect and ability, which is a wrong way of thinking. Yet I am aware that how my daughter speaks directly influences how she is treated. With a speech delay and apraxia of speech, few people take the time to get to know her.

“Doctors and nurses always doubt my intelligence based on my ability to be verbal. They always ask my mom if I graduated. Yes I did graduate and I graduated with a normal diploma with regular classes. Someone’s ability to speak doesn’t have any impact on our intelligence.” — Britany H.

“I just graduated with my bachelor’s degree in psychology and will start grad school in Counseling Psychology to become a counselor even though I’m nonverbal. I have [cerebral palsy] but I [am as capable as] every other 25-year-old.” — Ashley M.

What will happen if my daughter wants to join a debate team? Or science club? Will she be given an opportunity to try? Or will people only see Down syndrome and fail to presume competence?

And what about when she is looking for a job? Will she be given a fair chance? We know people with disabilities have higher unemployment rates. It doesn’t surprise me — I believe it has a direct correlation to people being ignorant about disability and not presuming competence.

“People still assume and think that I’m not capable of anything! And if I try to tell or prove them otherwise they ignore me anyway. And I am 33, got Tertiary Qualifications but can’t even get employed because I’m in a chair and don’t look ‘normal’ to the world.” — Lize K.

I wish people saw ability when they saw my child. I wish she was given the same opportunities as everyone else because she deserves them.

I wish my friend had said, “I got her this movie because physical comedy is so great and I thought she would enjoy a funny show.” I wish someone had said when she was only a few hours old, “If she ever gets teased because of her disability, I will make sure she knows how valuable and wonderful and gifted she is, no matter what people say.” I wish the dance studio had said, “Sure, bring her over so we can watch her in class and see how she does.”

How is my daughter supposed to shine when she lives in a world that continually tries to snuff out her light?

This is not something only my daughter faces. We reached out to our disability community and asked them to share their experiences of people not presuming competence. This is a pervasive problem within the disability community, and we need to talk about it. These are the rest of their responses:

“I think a lot of able-bodied people are absolutely shocked to find I have a partner and am getting married. They are under the impression that because I’m severely disabled and unwell that I wouldn’t be able to find a partner, that no one would value me for me. That my disabilities and illnesses are a burden and something to be avoided. But I have most definitely found the most beautiful amazing incredible fiancé and we couldn’t be more in love. It is possible to find love with a disability and never ever let anyone tell you differently.” — Leigh B.

“My little boy received a skateboard for his 6th birthday. As he was staring apprehensively at the quarterpipe ramp, a child nearby stated: “You can not do that! You’re too small!” My little boy, being quite stubborn, positioned his skateboard and completed his goal. He can skate!” — Shyfry W.

” I [use] a wheelchair. I’m proud to say I have my high school diploma and a college degree. However, when going into a job interview, do they look at my credentials? Big fat nope! They look at my wheelchair’s credentials! Which is odd, being that my brain is in my body, not my chair.” — Rebecca S.

“My 4-yr-old grandson had only said a few words, he started pre-k and after a few days of school his teacher asked me if I knew he could read. He read to her off another teacher’s t-shirt and he read the posters on the wall and he read the captions on the bottom of a page he was coloring. None of us had any idea he could read because he had been nonverbal.” — Patti N.

“Although people never doubted my abilities, I felt people treated me like I was ‘socially naive.’ For instance, during adolescence people thought I needed to learn teenage ‘trends’ or ‘fads’ because people thought I wasn’t paying attention. In reality, I knew what my neurotypical peers were into but did not care. The presumption of autistics like myself as being ‘socially naive’ is another way of people undermining our abilities and use this to justify that we can’t make good choices, like choosing what we are interested in.” — Christine M.

So next time you meet someone with a disability, please presume competence.

Getty image by Ohlesbeauxjours

Originally published: January 17, 2018
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