I was reminded of the importance of this much needed, self-assurance component in everyone’s life when last week two emails, one from my colleague Catherine Bell and one from a client’s mother, reached my inbox almost simultaneously. Catherine sent me a recent article of hers entitled Look Beyond the Disability that touches upon the difference between how she’s treated when she uses a cane — necessitated by the late effects of childhood polio —and when she doesn’t. As I scrolled through Catherine’s article, my thoughts turned to my client Melissa Vassallo and coincidentally, an email arrived from her mother with news about an upcoming celebration.
Four years after her accident, Melissa arrived at my office using a walker. She was lovely looking, her face untouched by the accident, and she had a sincere, winning smile. During our first encounter I detected a note of sadness as Melissa expressed the daily frustrations of trying to look and feel her most attractive. She wanted, and needed, to feel better about herself.
Over time, we worked together and as you can see, Melissa is justifiably proud of her journey. What was a winning smile has blossomed into a beaming smile! Bravo Melissa.
Meet this self-assured young woman with her infectious enthusiasm as she outlines her efforts to bring “Accessible Sailing,” in partnership with the Rick Hansen Wheels in Motion Foundation, to Oakville, Ontario. http://vimeo.com/10492683 (password: sailing)
Today, Melissa dashes around town on her Sidewalk-SUV and when she parks the sporty red scooter for a night out with friends, she’ll grab one of the many canes from her stylish collection. People often ask if she’s tripped, or “something” — they have no idea of the extent of her injuries. Melissa has truly mastered her very own sense of style!
Although Melissa and Catherine both use mobility devices/canes, what they really have in common is a highly developed sense of personal style. Catherine is a professional Image Consultant with a background in fashion, but what many people don’t realize is that she is also an advocate for people with disabilities. (In June 2009, Catherine was Ontario March of Dimes’ delegate at the Canadian Government Roundtable: United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.)
Catherine writes persuasively in Look Beyond the Disability: “People who use a wheelchair or other assistive devices for mobility can still make their own decisions, speak for themselves and contribute fully in the workplace and society. Often people assume that someone who can’t hear is unable to communicate; they may even question their competency. People who have a visual impairment may appear confused when someone abruptly leaves them standing alone in the middle of a room without telling them where the furniture is located. But this doesn’t mean that they’ll be confused when it comes to doing business, living alone in their home, or navigating new territory.”
Sadly, many well meaning individuals lack the know-how or etiquette to interact with people with disabilities:
- Ask before you help: never presume a person needs help
- Ask how before you act: a wheelchair or scooter is considered personal space
- Never touch unless help is requested and specific instructions are given about where to place your hands
- Offer assistance only when there appears to be a need
- Say “person with a disability,” not disabled person
- Not sure what to say? Ask — most people with disabilities avoid the term “challenged”
And finally, among friends humour has a role to play. My sister-in-law, on my late husband’s side, was born with spina bifida and is a wheelchair user. I often joke with her; “You always get the best seat in the house,” or “I see you’ve got new snow tires.” Remember, etiquette is all about putting people at ease.
Perhaps you have a related story to tell or a question about the protocols of sensitivity training in the workplace? Let us know and post a comment or email directly.
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