Do Not Underestimate People With Disabilities….Like I Did
In the heightened age of diversity and inclusion with everyone frantically trying to be more of both, it comes with a HUGE fear of offending those who are different from us.
Almost two years ago, our phone rang. On the other end was someone who was expressing that they wanted to be a part of our organization. She was explaining casually how much she loves the arts and wants to give her time. Then, just as caually she mentioned that she was blind. When my volunteer asked me what I should tell her, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life and replied, “tell her we don’t have anything she can do here.”
You just had one of these two reactions: “What was the mistake? I am not sure how a blind person could help at my organization either.” or I can literally hear your hand hit your face, see the shaking of your head and if you interact with people with disabilites often maybe even feel the outrage and disgust.
Here’s the thing. I wasn’t trying to mean, I literally really just didn’t know. So let’s continue the story! The young lady was very polite and the phone call ended. I felt bad that (in my lack of understanding) she could’t help, but that quickly faded as the demand of my everyday job immediately consumed me…until about ten minutes later.
This time, my phone rings again. “Hello?” Hi Nicole, this is Meredith, (a manager who’s name has been changed for the telling of this story). “Hi Meredith!” I say energetically becuase she is one of my favortite people in the organization and always look forward to her phone calls. “Did you just tell a young lady who expressed she was blind that we didn’t have anything for her?” she asked. My heart and breath both stop for a panicked second. “Yeeeeessssss?” I answered in a long slow drawn out one word answer in the form of a question. She went on to explain a few things to me, the first being I just violated the ADA (Americans for Disabilities Act) AND oh yeah, the young lady was the daughter of someone who held a public county office.
UGH! Now I am the one slapping my face. I am instantly afraid that I am losing my job becuase I am going to cause the organization to get sued.
After a few more phone calls, it was suggested that I attend the LEAD (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability Workshops &) Conference. It opened my eyes (no pun intended), pulled the curtain back, so to speak, to experience the world of someone who lives with a disability.
At this conference, it was literally the first time in my life I had interacted with people with disabilities and have never been so humbled in all of my life. Things that I made the ASSUMPTION that they needed help with, they maneuvered without incident, often times HELPING ME navigate spaces and answering MY questions.
I learned that people with disabilities are some of the strongest most determined people you will ever meet who DON’T want to be pitied. Just like you and me, they want to be interacted with as a human being. They don’t see themselves as “impaired” or “broken” or “less than”. They navigate life differently, just as someone who is left-handed navigates the world differently from someone who is right-handed….neither is better or worse…just different.
Like everything else in life, the best solution for this is to get to know and understand those who are different from you.
Do Your Research — Look up local organizations and make a phone call. Tell them that you want to learn more. I have yet to do that with an organization where they said no (ironically exactly opposite of what I did, but I digress). Sign up for and take a class that they may be offering. If there is a conference that addresses accessibility and disability in your sector, attend it.
Educate — Invite people from the organization and/or the community that you would like to learn more about to come and share their experiences with your organization. This will not only educate your team, but allow them to ask questions and gain a better understanding in a safe space.
Budget — Create a new line item in your budget for accessibility. Where you spend your money is a reflection of what you value. “We didn’t have the money” should never be a recurring reason as to why accommodations couldn’t be made for someone who has a disability.
Be Genuine — In your journey of discovery, always be in the position of learning. Be mindful not to approach people with disabilities with the attitude that you are there to “save” them. I have learned that if you simply ask,”How can I help?” you will learn what they need, IF anything. Don’t make the assumption that becuase they navigate the world differently from you that they need your help. Asking goes a REALLY long way.
It has been a little over two years and thankfully, I am still with the organization. I am grateful that they took the opportunity to educate me when they realized what I was missing.
I can’t tell you how that phone call changed my life and outlook working with people with disabilities forever and why I am now so passionate and aware of being more inclusive. I am taking small intentional steps to be better. I am NOWHERE near where I need to be, but I have come a long way from where I started; and you better believe, the next time the phone rings and someone mentions they have a disability and they want to give their time, the first words out of my mouth will be, “That is fabulous! How can I help?”
Nicole is a Panamanian-American, workforce development specialist, published author of Game On! Relentlessly Pursue Your Dreams and the 101 Note-taking Affirmation Journal Series, motivational speaker, blogger podcast host of From The Suggestion Box; Navigating Feedback The Good The Bad and the Say Whaaatttt??? and dancer. She earned her Bachelor’s degree via a Division I full-ride track scholarship and after graduating, she founded Step It Up! Inc., a non-profit dance organization. Her experience in sports and entertainment, radio, TV and the performing arts has spanned nearly 20 years covering the Chicago, Houston and Miami markets. She has danced and cheered for four Professional and Semi-Professional sports teams, has prepared more than 500 interns to enter the workforce and has inspired crowds upwards of 2000. She was a contributing writer for The Life of a Single Mom for two years and in October 2020 she was awarded an Emerging Leader Award from Alive Impact Awards for Volunteer Engagement Professionals. In 2019 she was listed as one of WLRN’s “Local Women Who Inspire You” and was selected as one of Legacy Miami’s Most Prominent and Influential Black Women In Business and Industry of 2019. She is passionate about giving back to her community and does so by sitting on the Boards of the Association for Leaders In Volunteer Engagement, the Arts and Business Council of Miami and Ageless CHIC Magazine.