When you think of a person with a disability, what comes to mind? A blind person with a guide dog? Or perhaps a person in a wheelchair, or someone talking to herself on the subway? The term disability is very generic and ambiguous.
When the label of “disability” is attached to you, it can be difficult to feel like an autonomous, equal and respected member of society. It starts with the language we use. I find the term “disability” demeaning. When you break it down, the prefix “dis” means subtraction or removal and when you put it in front of “ability,” it implies that there is a subtraction or removal of ability. I don’t feel like I am less able than my co-workers, friends or family, but that’s what my label says.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines a person with a disability as follows:
By this standard, most of us would fall into this category during all or some part of our lives. In fact, the United Nations has determined that over one billion people around the world identify as a person with a disability, roughly one in seven. Yet, this population still remains amongst the poorest, socially isolated, stigmatized and victimized groups.
Historically, persons with disabilities were euthanized, institutionalized, tortured, humiliated and stripped of their dignity. Today in Canada, there have been tremendous efforts to remedy the past; however, we still have a long way to go. Canadians with disabilities still face social, economic, systemic, and attitudinal barriers. Persons with disabilities top the list when it comes to unemployment. According to Statistics Canada, nearly half of Canadians with disabilities who are actively looking for work are unemployed or cannot find steady employment. In addition, persons with disabilities are still at a greater risk of being victimized, especially children.
In my own experience, ableism has been the most significant barrier. Ableism is the discrimination and social exclusion of persons with disabilities, and stands in the way of the full participation and acceptance of persons with disabilities. These kinds of attitudes and assumptions, mostly negative, towards me and other persons with disability in general have always bothered me. But I can’t blame those who have these attitudes or make such assumptions. After all, disability is viewed as negative and socially constructed as being a burden, and the person with the disability as being dependent on others.
Over the years, people have assumed that I was incapable of completing certain tasks and achieving challenging goals. I have heard comments such as, “It’s too bad you won’t be able to do this” or “This may be too challenging for someone like you.” I always get a thrill when I prove these doubters wrong.
I believe that adapting to any situation is possible, despite the obstacles. I was born with an eye disorder that affects the retina. As a result, I have been legally blind for my entire life. I do have some vision, but by law, I am considered blind. I do not know what it is like to be “sighted” and thus, I was able to adapt to my surroundings without grieving the loss of my vision. I feel extremely privileged and fortunate.
The key to any success that I have had in life is because of my family, more specifically my parents. I grew up in an environment where I was considered an equal who was capable of achieving anything. My parents constantly encouraged me to pursue my goals. I was not judged, pitied or excluded from participating in “normal” childhood activities. For my parents, my eye disorder is only a part of my identity, like having brown hair or hazel eyes. It was not my burden; it was just a part of me. This consistent message allowed me to get through school, work, travel, and enjoy life. Today, I still hold these beliefs and views. I am also very proud of my uniqueness and I hope that diversity can be valued and something we strive for, especially in the workplace.
Negative attitudes and assumptions might still arise in my future, but I just need to be sure that I don’t internalize them. We must be aware of our assumptions and attitudes, where they come from, what shapes them, and how they impact others. Anyone at any time has the possibility to experience ableism. Being born with a disability or developing one later on in life can expose someone to this form of discrimination. Try to make a conscious effort to support persons with disabilities and break down these attitudinal barriers in order to create a truly inclusive society. Remember that we are all able, so open your mind.
If you or someone you know has experienced discrimination in the workplace, contact your employee assistance program at 1 866 833-7690 or visit workhealthlife.com.