People First

Disability Awareness

True or False: Students with disabilities are completely different than students without disabilities.

Given common views and perceptions about students with disabilities, it is understandable if you thought this was a true statement. However, it is not. Students with disabilities are just like other students. They are people experiencing the same things as everyone else—dreams, desires, fears, likes, and dislikes. They are experiencing the same challenges and changes as they move from adolescence to adulthood. Of course, all people differ from one another in some respects—not everybody is exactly the same! What differences students with disabilities do have are in terms of their needs that arise specific to their disability.

Sometimes students with disabilities require devices, aids, or services to meet those needs. These needs, however, do not make a person inherently different, just as needing crutches for a broken leg would not make you different from your friends. It is extremely important for people to recognize that although people with disabilities may require special needs or have areas of limitations, they also have many strengths, capabilities, talents, and ways to contribute to their families, friends, co-workers, and society. And of course, we should always remember – all of us have limitations of one kind or another and need support!

To become more aware, consider the following:

Talk to the person with a disability about what he or she wants. Often, people talk for and about people with disabilities, but not with them. People should always be given choices about how to live their lives. Remember that people with disabilities should always be involved in, if not fully in charge of, decisions regarding their lives. How would it feel if someone else planned your life?

Show respect. While in the presence of a person with a disability, do not talk about that person as if he or she were not there. Do not make the assumption that the person is incapable of understanding what you say. Remember: just because a person does not communicate verbally does not mean that person can’t understand what you are saying! We would never want others to talk about us as if we were not there.

Be empathetic. This is not the same as being sympathetic. Try to view the actions and words of a person with disabilities from their perspective. What you may view as non-compliance, manipulation, or stubbornness may be the only way that the person can exert some control over their life, especially if they have limited verbal communication skills. Not everybody communicates in the same way. When you come across an action or behavior that is unfamiliar or peculiar to you, ask yourself what that person may be trying to tell you.

Recognize the importance of relationships. People with disabilities are not “loners.” Just like everyone else, they desire and need meaningful connections to others. Friendships for all of us are at the core of life. 

Educate yourself. If you have questions or are curious regarding people with disabilities, seek answers! Become familiar with the issues surrounding disability. Become familiar with the different types of disabilities. When you are unclear about something, assuming is the worst thing you can do. That’s how those stereotypes come about.

Vote. If you feel strongly about certain disability issues that come up, find out more about them and vote for what you believe! Another way to show your beliefs is to write a letter or e-mail to the members of congress who represent you. Of course, we should also advocate to make sure that people with disabilities also have the opportunity to vote – this a basic right and responsibility of citizenship for us all.

Be positive. Far too often, people focus on what people with disabilities can’t do. You can show people how to stay positive by focusing instead on all of the things that people with disabilities can do. This can be as easy as changing the way you phrase certain sentences. For example:

Instead of:Say:

She has reading problems.

She needs books with large print.

He’s nonverbal.

He communicates with his eyes and hands.

He can’t walk.

He uses a power chair.

She can’t feed herself.

She needs assistance with eating.

Now that you have expanded your awareness, think about the people in your school who have a disability. Have you been viewing them as just typical peers, or have you singled them out in your mind and viewed them differently—as being separate from the rest? 
Write a reflection piece on your thoughts.

Now that you have reflected on your awareness, you can educate your peers. Help them to understand there is nothing inherently different about people with disabilities. Their needs may differ from yours but they are experiencing the same feelings as you and your friends at this stage in your life. 

Make a list of ten ways you can help increase public awareness regarding disabilities.