Tuesday, 19 July 2011

"Please Don't Feed the Disabled People"

All things considered, the town that I live in is very good to people with disabilities.

Living with Disabilities in a Small Town

If I've ever been in trouble (like, I've felt a seizure coming on or I've simply needed to sit down and rest), local businesses have been more than accommodating about letting me sit down and get a glass of water, or get a cab if I'm walking somewhere. I've actually had seizures in public, sometimes with not even enough warning to say "Seizure" before I've passed out, and woken up in the hospital; once it was a nurse from Toronto in town for the weekend who took it on herself to call the ambulance, and the other time, being in a cab, the driver simply turned around and drove me to the hospital.

The toughest kids in town have fallen over themselves to open doors for me, and I've had complete strangers offer me a ride when they see me start to walk home. I actually got the name for this blog from how I imagine many of the people in town see me (the ones who don't know me, at least): "the girl with the cane" who's always walking around.

I've also felt grateful that the folks that I work with who have intellectual disabilities have a generally good experience in my town. People know them, they do volunteer and paid work, they're active in churches and community groups.  They're recognized and, for the most part, welcomed in the community. Not to say that things are perfect. I've heard people mock them. But I think that, generally, people know who they are and they keep an eye out for them. I appreciate that. I've known some of these people for over half my life, and I like to think that there are people who appreciate their presence in the community as much as I do.

If anything, sometimes I wonder if they're a little *too* welcoming...

Popcorn Break

My town, though small, did have a movie theatre for a long time. I worked there for a summer in my teens, serving popcorn and pop and chips. Every night without fail, a middle-aged man with intellectual disabilities named Howard used to stop by the theatre on his evening walk for a free box of popcorn. It was a ritual that the owner had started, and Howard obviously expected it.

This did not sit right with me.

"We make other people with disabilities pay for their popcorn when they come to the movies," I said to my co-worker, who'd been there several months longer than I had. "And no one needs that much popcorn."

She shrugged. "Do you want to tell him that he can't have it, after all this time?"

"Well, no..."

So I watched it go on, night after night, feeling more and more uncomfortable with it. I could remember a time when this really wouldn't have bothered me, but I'd been volunteering with a local agency that supported people with disabilities for about a year, and it didn't now. This wasn't like feeding a deer that wandered into your backyard every day.    This was a human being with disabilities who was learning that,for some reason, he was entitled to special treatment. Maybe he didn't understand why he was getting free popcorn - but the rest of us knew. I wanted to know what our boss got out of giving Howard free popcorn every night.  The only thing I could think of was that he thought that he was somehow doing him a favour, or that he thought it was "cute" when Howard asked, "I have popcorn, please?"

I never did ask him why.  But when my father mentioned that he'd seen Howard getting free food somewhere else in town one day, I got annoyed.

"I really wish they wouldn't do that," I said. "He has his own money - I've seen him use it. He doesn't need hand-outs, and he doesn't people making him think that it's okay to go around asking people for food. That's not a good way to function in society."

"We're living in a society here!" - George Constanza

I only worked in the theatre one summer, and I don't know if the ritual with Howard stopped, or when. I know that a lot of people would argue that we really weren't doing any harm - maybe we weren't. My boss was a kind-hearted man, very generous by nature, and I'm sure absolutely intended no harm.

But I fully believe that if they wouldn't have given free popcorn to a typical customer, they shouldn't have been giving it to Howard, or any person with disabilities.

I'm not a mean-spirited person. I'm just a person that believes that we need to look at adults with disabilities as *adults* first and foremost - not children who need a treat when we see them, or who get to never grow up because of their disabilities...but fully-grown people who get to participate in the community as fully-grown people.  Will some of them need some support to do this?  Of course. But they are still adults, with adult rights and responsibilities...like paying for snacks at the movie theatre.

We do them a disservice to people with disabilities when we take these opportunities to be everything they can be away from them. No one wants to be a child forever.

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