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The Journal Gazette

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Friday, March 09, 2018 1:00 am

Looking beyond disability reveals a whole person

Lise Pace

According to the Indiana Governor's Council for People with Disabilities, roughly 19 percent of Hoosiers have some type of disability.

People with disabilities are the nation's largest minority group, and one that people from all genders, ethnic backgrounds, ages and socioeconomic levels can become a part of at any time.

Yet unfortunately, we still live in a world where people with disabilities are defined by a medical diagnosis, devaluing everything else about who they are as people and reducing them just to being “different than me.”

We use terms such as “blind woman,” “autistic student” or “handicapped neighbor” – lazy labels that ignore the person behind the disability.

The words we use to describe people with disabilities in conversations, in writing, on social media and elsewhere are powerful and can shape how the world perceives these issues.

Simplified labels cause society to have a narrow view, exacerbating stereotypes and fostering attitudes that make it harder for people with disabilities to integrate into mainstream society.

Led by the Governor's Council, March has been designated in Indiana as Disability Awareness Month to promote independence, integration and inclusion of all people who have disabilities.

It's a cause we at Bosma Enterprises can firmly get behind, as it mirrors our own mission of providing opportunities for Hoosiers who are blind or visually impaired to gain the life skills they need to remain independent, as well as job opportunities to remain self-sufficient.

People-first language is the philosophy of putting the person before his or her disability and is one way we can begin to change the conversation around disability issues. In people-first language, the disability simply becomes a secondary trait, not a defining characteristic.

To revisit the examples given above, we would instead say “a woman who is blind,” “a student with autism” or “my neighbor who uses a wheelchair.” People-first language emphasizes that we are all people, first and foremost.

As someone who has lost most of my vision as a result of the genetic disorder retinitis pigmentosa, I know how it feels to be labeled by a disability.

Early in the process of losing my sight, while shopping at a local department store, I overheard a group of people referring to me as a “blind person” because I was using a cane to navigate the store.

At the time, I myself had not yet determined how I wanted to define my disability and what it meant to me to be a person with low vision. How could someone I don't even know judge what being a “blind person” means?

People experience low vision in such diverse ways that it's demeaning to use a definitive label such as “blind” – not to mention that it ignores everything else about the person that makes them unique.

I still have usable vision but am legally blind and cannot drive a car. Some of my colleagues at Bosma are completely without sight, some can see only under specific lighting conditions, while others experience a very limited field of vision.

Some use guide dogs, some use canes, while others use their mobile phones to help them navigate unfamiliar spaces.

Labeling us all as “blind people” is inaccurate and misses the point. If we only see the disability, we miss out on the other shared experiences that could bring us together.

You may not realize that your colleague who is blind also shares your affinity for '80s pop music, that your nephew who has autism is a wealth of sports trivia or that your neighbor who uses a wheelchair has a passion for woodworking.

What's even more concerning is that these misperceptions could lead to fewer job opportunities for people with disabilities. A common myth is that it is difficult to supervise employees with disabilities or that it is expensive to make the workplace accessible.

However, according to a Harris poll, 82 percent of managers said employees with disabilities were no harder to supervise than employees without disabilities.

Studies have also shown that employees with disabilities perform at the same level and do not experience any more safety-related issues than an average employee.

At Bosma Enterprises, where more than half of our employees are blind or visually impaired, we have a 99 percent accuracy rate in our warehousing and contract packaging businesses, proof that employees who are blind provide the same level of quality as any other worker.

People who are blind or visually impaired face a 70 percent unemployment rate nationally, so we at Bosma Enterprises do everything we can to eliminate barriers to employment.

We know that for many, being labeled by a disability isn't only dehumanizing, it's an economic issue.

People with disabilities simply can't afford to be misunderstood because it prevents them from meaningful employment that allows them to remain independent, so we're grateful that Disability Awareness Month provides a platform to have these conversations.

When we begin to see the whole person and understand their unique experience, we gain greater empathy and see that a “blind job applicant” is really “someone who has significant experience in the field,” or that your “handicapped neighbor” is really “someone who is a talented woodworker.”

So, this month, as we celebrate disability awareness, I encourage you to think about the words you are using when you are addressing people with disabilities.

If there's anything you're unsure of, just ask!

After all, we're all just people, and I think you'll find that there's more connecting us than separating us.

Lise Pace is interim vice president of marketing and advocacy for Bosma Enterprises, an Indianapolis nonprofit helping the blind and visually impaired obtain life skills.