“Don’t stare!” As youngsters we all heard some adult in our lives tell us it was impolite to gawk, giggle or point when we encountered a physically or mentally disabled person. We also didn’t know enough to lower our voices or wait until we were well out of earshot to ask, “Why does he look, walk, talk, think, hear, see, act or get around like that?” As we grew and matured, we were taught to be compassionate, caring people who assisted those less fortunate than ourselves. And that is a good thing.

However, as the video below demonstrates, we now may have a tendency to acknowledge the disability without acknowledging the person, and that is not a good thing.

One of the worst, most insulting things you can do to a disabled person is to assume they may be incapable of performing a task they are perfectly capable of doing themselves. Rushing to open a door for someone in a wheelchair is a great example. Many of the handicapped do not want to be fawned over or coddled. They delight in doing things for themselves.

In my encounters with the wives and caregivers of Wounded Warriors, one of the lessons I learned is to treat these veterans like everyone else. “If they need help, they’ll ask for it,” a wife instructed me. Also, I once ate dinner with a quadriplegic veteran who spent a good part of the meal manipulating his prosthetics in an effort to pick up the piece of chive resting on his plate. When he finally got a grip on the skinny green stalk, he held it up with the same look of pride and accomplishment I recently saw reflected in the faces of our gold medal Olympians in Sochi! Even more pleased was his wife who, sitting next to him, had not once offered to help as he struggled with his newly fitted “fingers”. Patricia Wright, the national director of autism services at Easter Seals, said it well when she said, “Respectfully addressing people with disabilities as competent beings is paramount to the well-being of both the individuals and society.”

My severely autistic granddaughter is afflicted with the “hidden” disability of autism and is hard to understand. But, with 1 in every 88 children in American now being diagnosed with autism, our awareness and patience should be growing! Unfortunately, my daughter has suffered countless insults from ignorant or judgmental adults, some bent on offering unasked for advice on ways to discipline a strong-willed child. I was with her at the grocery store one day when Millie had a major melt-down, manifest through acting out is very loud and aggressive manner. A passerby who witnessed the apple-throwing episode said, “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you control that child? If she were mine I’d turn her over my knee and give her a good spanking!” To which my daughter bravely and correctly answered, “Lady, if she were yours you wouldn’t have a clue what to do with her!”

Later today I will have the privilege of being Master of Ceremonies at a musical event for the RECing Crew, a non-profit organization begun over a decade ago offering sports and leisure activities to young adults with disabilities in the North Augusta, South Carolina area. The audience will be filled with people watching loved ones perform… not young adults with disabilities. Let’s all strive to do likewise and not be so quick to lend a hand – or hand a balloon – to the next person we see with a disability.

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