The Thread - How Do People Treat You?

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

A DO-IT Pal recently posed the following question in our Internet discussion forum. I will share with you some of the responses so that you can get a flavor of the rich conversations the DO-IT community has online.

I have been thinking lately about how society treats disabled people: It seems like they tend to back away from anyone abnormal. I have teenage high school buddies with disabilities and they don't really have a social life there. So I'm asking if society has ignored any of you? Have you experienced discrimination?

DO-IT Mentor: Yes, I have. Mostly in employment situations but also in terms of how I see us portrayed in the media and how we are regarded in society. The thing is that this is a very complex issue. People are employment-ignorant more than mean, and they are simply uncomfortable with anyone who is very different from themselves. We have a responsibility, too, to insist we be included. Most of the time this just means showing up.

I would ask, why do your buddies not get involved in school life? What specifically are they not part of? Do they hold back, or are they actively barred from participating? If the latter, by whom?

DO-IT Pal: My friends are just shy, I guess. I mean, one friend had friends but they deserted her, and another friend is too shy to approach anybody. I can understand why she's scared, too. She wants to be accepted but at the same time not freak anybody out. It's weird.

DO-IT Mentor: High schoolers can be very odd creatures. Very often, the goal is to blend in or have a group to fit in with. It sounds like you may be more outgoing than some of your friends with disabilities. It may be that they have been excluded before or do not like the same people as you. They might not be as outspoken as you. Whatever. It seems to me, the best thing you could do is continue to be a friend to your other friends with disabilities, and maybe introduce them to some of your other friends. Maybe others will learn from your example. For the record, I DO NOT think your friend is at all weird. High school is one of the most difficult places to be different in any way. College is better for a lot of people in that regard.

As far as experiencing discrimination, I definitely have seen it-in school, college, and work experiences. I think it is a societal problem, but not one that laws and social programs alone will fix. I think that depends on changing people's perceptions, those of people with disabilities and able-bodied as well. For me, it BEGINS with showing up but is much more complicated than that.

DO-IT Pal: Very nice response. We are odd creatures indeed. Sometimes I wish society could be more accessible to disabled people. I mean, it doesn't just happen to disabled people; I have a foreign exchange student friend of mine from Germany and just two days ago I saw somebody trip her intentionally in the hall. I was ready to just get out of there and go straight to the United Nations and complain, but I didn't. In response to the other question, I haven't experienced discrimination myself. I am outgoing, and I am accepted at my school. It's my friends I worry about. Any suggestions?

DO-IT Pal: You accept your friends, right? I think that's enough. At least they found someone who does accept them.... As for the others who kind of avoid your friends, that's their problem, not your friends'. They can't help having a disability; if you accept them and let your other friends know you do, then that would probably make them feel more comfortable around them. Then again, maybe your friends aren't being discriminated against, maybe they don't have many friends at school because they are shy.... I found that in elementary school, I was made fun of because I was not comfortable being myself.... I really thought of myself as a different person, but from middle school to high school, I feel so much better about myself and no one makes fun of me. I don't look at myself as different—I'm the same as anybody, I just walk differently.

DO-IT Mentor: One of your comments really stood out to me, which was "I found that in elementary school, I was made fun of because I was not comfortable being myself.... I really thought of myself as a different person, but from middle school to high school, I feel so much better about myself and no one makes fun of me." I just wanted to share with you and others on the list some of our observations from the DO-IT side.

Yes, being comfortable with ourselves is important and it does make a difference in the way people treat us. There are other factors at work, too. As our DO-IT friends transition through junior high to high school to college to careers, there seems to be more acceptance as they go along.

If it felt great going from junior high to high school because people were more mature and accepting, just wait until you take a class at a community college or a university! The same thing happens again: you realize that in the new environment, people are more interested in different kinds of people and more likely to see diversity as a strength rather than something to make fun of.

DO-IT Mentor: It is nice that you are concerned for your friends. My only suggestion would be to try to include your friends with disabilities in conversations and activities whenever you can. Maybe if all your friends get to know each other a bit through you, they will be more open about being friendly to each other. You might also let them know that poor behavior is not something you will tolerate in your friends. Of course, this means you have to speak up at some point, leave the offensive situation, or risk being labeled somehow yourself. Sometimes you have to decide which group to be part of and when to keep your mouth shut. It is also important to consider what your more shy friends would want. Do they appreciate your sticking up for them? Or are they embarrassed by it? The only way to know this is to ASK them. If this seems weird to you, you might say something like "It really bugs me when I see THIS happen. I've noticed that you don't say much about it. Can I help?" That way, you let them know you see the situation and can share your reaction, but you can also get their reaction before just jumping in to fix things.

Of course, between the way I was raised and my training as an OT, I tend to think people have to learn to fight their own battles some of the time too, which means sometimes letting people solve their own problems—even if it is difficult to watch. You can be a good friend at the same time.

DO-IT Pal: Wow, that's definitely a big issue. Anyone who looks or acts different could get made fun of. I am in a wheelchair and have spina bifida. When I was in elementary school, I was made fun of A LOT; I would go home and cry every day. Now I'm in high school and I don't get made fun of, but it seems that a lot of people treat me differently. I hate it. What bugs me the most is when there is something I want to do which involves being active and the teacher or adult would say, "Are you sure you can do this?" An example is when I was in class, which is called Service Learning, and we were helping out with a Halloween haunted house. I was able to do a lot of things, but when it came to the tough stuff like climbing ladders, I wouldn't have anything to do, and I would sit there and the teacher would see me doing nothing; I guess she got the impression that I can't do anything. And another day, she sent me to the office to do my homework while the other kids helped out. I was so angry.

Discrimination happens all the time. To people in chairs, the deaf, the blind, the mentally ill, autistic... everything. People tend to look at the things you aren't able to do and discriminate against you for that, but it takes A LOT to get them to notice what you really can do. You have to work hard at that. It's not easy, but in the end it's worthwhile because you become a stronger person and people do realize that we have plenty to offer. We have a disability, but we are able in plenty of things.

DO-IT Mentor: For what it's worth, I totally agree. During my time at the U-Dub I saw myself as someone different, and for the most part it only served to keep me isolated. I made only a few briefly- engaged, transient friends during that whole time. I wish I had known better then, but I didn't... so there you are. Still, in one respect, I am different in the sense that we are—each of us—a minority of one, and by "us" I mean ALL people. And it is that intrinsic minority status which bears exploring in each other, which bears understanding and appreciation.

DO-IT Ambassador: Of course there are always jerks, but I think a lot of the recoil I've got has been out of fear or inexperience. It's maddening, but one time someone started the idea that disabled people are either breakable or really oversensitive, or jerks who use their disability to take advantage. It's of course untrue, but a lot of people believe it. I would really like to get my hands on whoever started it!

DO-IT Ambassador: I didn't become disabled until eighth grade. I had a ton of friends before, and people were calling me every day. I was a popular guy. After my injury, in high school, my friends pretty much just dropped away because most high school kids are not mature; they are very shallow and superficial. I cannot even remember the last time I got a phone call from one of my friends.

People in college are somewhat more mature; I have a few friends, but girls pretty much just blow me off without even trying to get to know me or anything. They just write me off because they see me as disabled. I mean, listen to what one girl said to me: I asked her if maybe we could get together sometime and do something, and her reply was "I am booked the rest of the school year."

DO-IT Mentor: That is rough. I am sure it is hard to deal with an acquired disability at any age, but probably worse as a teen than other times. It might have been that your friends did not know how to include you in old activities or perceived a change in your attitude as you were adjusting to your new situation. You were probably going through a lot of emotions and may not have been too pleasant to hang around with. That is understandable. I know I was not pleasant to be with in high school, and it was worse whenever I was dealing with a change in my functional status. I did not share a lot of this with my peers because none of the kids I went to high school with was in a similar situation. What I did instead was seek out other people I could talk to about disability-related issues so I had a place to vent and figure out what was really important to me.

I have several disabilities that have changed over time, and I know I routinely have to educate people (sometimes even people I have known for a long time or some I think ought to have figured it out by now) about what I can do and what I would like help with. I know whenever I show up in my wheelchair instead of using my crutches, people ask me what happened. Then I just have to smile and say, "I am using a wheelchair today so I could be the shopping cart," or something a bit less witty if I am having an off day.

One suggestion is when you meet people, try to find a common interest or a strength you can share before meeting a person. Say you meet a person in a math class and you are a math whiz. If there is a test coming up, it is easier to say, "Can we study?" than just to start a conversation like "Do you want to go out sometime?" (It is harder for people to say no once they like you as the smart guy, the funny one, or whatever.) If you have something to share, then people will have something to talk about besides all the stuff they think you cannot do before they even talk with you because you look different or cannot move well—because people do make assumptions. It might also help if people knew what kinds of things you liked and needed help with, which you would have to let them know. Then people might be more able to make plans with you.

DO-IT Ambassador: Thanks for the advice, but those are things I am already doing or have already tried. My social problems in high school were not caused by me acting a certain way; I was nice to everyone. It's just that they didn't know how to interact with me or what to say, so they just ignored me instead.

DO-IT Mentor: I do understand. In general, I would say that nondisabled people are well meaning but nervous around people with disabilities. The one exception is teens. It's a time in one's life where one is struggling to see one's place among peers. Often this translates into making sharp distinctions in one's own favor. That is, if you can put someone down, that elevates you in the eyes of those you see as the elite. Or so one thinks. I was not aware of my disability as a teen but was an out kid for other reasons... mostly economic. It could get really cruel. Graduation was one of the happiest days in my life. College was a completely different experience. Adulthood is even better. The older I get, the better it gets in that regard.

I think it may be part of the enculturation of all peoples to reject the unfamiliar, including people. That is a very sad state of affairs, and I believe it is every individual's responsibility to refuse to cooperate with that enculturation.