Monday, July 2, 2012

Independent Does Not Mean Impolite

By: Victoria Beck

Be independent.

As we grow up with, or learn to live with disabilities, we hear this admonition frequently. And we absorb it. Thankfully, some reality is slowly sneaking past the slogan masters. We are beginning to hear that it is acceptable to be interdependent.

That’s a relief – and it is also reality. In today’s world, and maybe throughout time, everyone – with or without a disability – is, or has been dependent on someone. Probably several someones. Very few of us grow our own food, make our own clothes or build our own homes. Someone else created the Internet, built our computers, assembled our vehicles. And someone else may have mowed our lawn, cleaned our floors or prepared our meals.

Other people answer our questions, provide information, and give us advice and direction. Still others listen as we sort out our days and our lives.

I would need a very powerful calculator to total up the number of people who assist me on any given day.

Being able to depend on others makes us a bit stronger, and makes our lives a lot richer. Depending on others does not indicate weakness or a lack of independence or perseverance – it is part of belonging to the whole community.

Obviously, we need all these people we depend on – and they, in different ways, need us. Given the complexity of modern life, we cannot possibly personally thank everyone who contributes to all the many aspects of our lives, including activities, health, comfort and safety.

Even so, it is important to thank those we can – especially those close to us and those we interact with on a regular basis. In addition to filling definitive, tangible needs, they give us their time and support.

Recognizing our interdependence does not mean we can take the efforts of others on our behalf for granted. It does not mean we can skip saying thank you or returning the phone call. We cannot ignore our messages or simply assume people always have the time or the energy to take care of whatever we need.

As we all become busier and more distracted by the demands of our lives, I am afraid we are forgetting the efforts of others on our behalf. Maybe we aren’t, but it is impossible to be sure when basic politeness seems to be either consistently ignored – or forgotten.

I have watched and listened as some people with disabilities struggling with a difficult door or steep ramp yelled abusively, loudly proclaiming their independence to someone who was only offering to help them.

I doubt that some minor assistance with a door or ramp is going to radically diminish anyone’s independence. However, rudeness can diminish many things.

The last time I was in the hospital, there was a child roaming the ward in his wheelchair. I guess he was about 9 or 10. He was cute, inquisitive and funny; my roommate and I enjoyed his visits, until he wanted or needed something. Then, what should have been requests became orders: “Give me the balloon; make me a picture.” We did as he wanted, but could not restrain ourselves. Every time he prepared to leave, he heard our duet: “Say thank you.”

There are far too many adults – disabled and non-disabled alike – who could benefit from the same reminder.

-Victoria Beck was born with cerebral palsy. She is a former reporter for The Tampa Tribune, where she covered religion and disability issues. Currently, she is a Senior Editor and Writer for Shriners Hospitals for Children. She is also my mother and has spent much of her life devoted to advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities.

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