Look Me In The Eyes And Speak
I was taught by my parents that, when you are speaking to someone, you look them in the eyes. Eye contact is a sign of respect, and a signal that you are invested in the personal interaction.
For people with disabilities, myself included, that respect is important, but often hard to find.
I am a world traveler, and have taken more than 300 flights in the past two years with my wheelchair. As a triple amputee, I’m not the most attractive disabled guy out there, but I do clean up and dress well when traveling. Pants paired with a polo shirt, button down or WheelchairTravel.org t-shirt. I’m old school and view air travel as a privilege, and think people should dress nicely when they fly (that’s another article).
While I typically fly solo, I will occasionally bring a friend or family member along for the ride. It didn’t take me long to notice a curious trend when airlines see that I’ve brought someone with me.
It starts at check-in. “Will he need assistance to the gate?” This question is directed at my companion, rather than me. Even when I speak, the agent’s eyes remain focused to my companion. When I say “no, I can make it there on my own,” they glance at my mom, dad, sister or friend, just to see if my word can be trusted.
This occurs again at the gate, and with the special assistance staff who are tasked with rolling me onto the plane in the aisle chair. “How can we best assist him with transferring to the seat?”
Oh, man. That one drives me insane. Their assumption that I cannot speak for myself is demeaning. It is a slap in the face. As if someone else would understand my needs better than me.
I recently began asking that my traveling companions distance themselves when I have to interact with an airline employee. I tell them to check-in with a different agent and hold back from pre-boarding with me. Most of the time, I get treated with significantly more respect that way.
I encounter similar situations elsewhere within society, but my travel experiences offered me an opportunity to speak with greater authority and certainty.
I know that there are a lot of people whose disability prevents them from speaking for themselves. But for the vast majority of us, that is not the case. Err on the side of caution, and treat people with disabilities as an equal.
I often wish I had a tattoo on my forehead that says, “I may be physically broken, but I’m still intelligent.”
This article is not a condemnation of the able-bodied, but rather a call to personal growth. People have a natural tendency to avoid uncomfortable situations. I’m not a pretty face. That can be uncomfortable. Before my car accident, I probably treated people with disabilities the same way.
The lesson here is this — when you encounter someone with a disability, give them your respect. Address them directly, by speaking to and not at them. Look them in the eye. And most importantly, be comfortable in the moment. My amputations are not contagious, and I won’t bite!