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People With Disabilities Don't Need Us To Decide What's 'Best' For Them

Stop telling people what they need. Ask them — and then listen to the answers.

09/06/2017 17:00 EDT | Updated 09/06/2017 19:05 EDT

As a temporarily able-bodied person (TAB), I am getting very tired of hearing about people with a disability who are not believed or are challenged to prove that they are, in fact, with disability. Nearly every low-vision and blind person I know has a story about going about their ordinary daily activities, only to be accosted by someone who says, "You aren't really blind, are you?!"

Why does a person with a disability need to be further disabled by a TAB society that demands incompetence? Why isn't it acceptable for a blind person to walk down the street to buy milk without having to demonstrate that, yes, they can manage just fine, thanks, but also yes, they do need that cane or that guide dog?

Getty Images/Westend61

I blame Just for Laugh, among other such media representations of disability. It seems that nearly every episode has a skit where a sighted person pretends to be blind and then whistles at an attractive woman, or performs some other silly feat that would be unlikely for a blind person to do. The "big reveal" comes when the actor takes off his or her sunglasses to demonstrate that he or she is actually sighted. Big laugh? Not for me.

Last week, Ontario' human rights tribunal upheld the decision of a school board to deny a boy with autism permission to bring his service dog to class with him. Why? Because the school authorities say he doesn't really need the dog. Apparently, he is making acceptable progress in his class without the animal. But what is acceptable progress, and who gets to determine what is acceptable in each child's case? The report card? Report cards do not tell you about a child's level of comfort or happiness or fear. If this boy's progress is acceptable now, is it possible that he might progress even better if he had the support of his service animal during school hours?

The school board regulations appear to support the use of service animals only as a last resort.

Such a policy is most puzzling. Surely decisions about the education of ALL children should be made in the best interests of the child. It looks as if the decision about what is in this child's best interests is not being made by the boy or his parents, but by a school board that is looking for ways to sustain their own best interests. The law requires that people with disabilities be accommodated. Refusal to accommodate must demonstrate undue hardship. There is a big difference between inconvenience and undue hardship.

When we accommodate a person's disability, we are not "letting them get away with" something.

I was struck by a comment made by a person who had heard the story of the boy with autism being denied his service dog. She related a story about her own childhood. She had been prescribed very thick and rather fragile glasses for a significant vision problem. Her parents would not let her wear these glasses when she was outside for fear that she would break them. They were very costly to replace. The woman stated that she fell a lot but learned to get along without her glasses — and that she was better off for doing so. This reminded me of the many people I have heard talk about having been beaten when they were children. They often end the story of this experience by saying, "And look at me — I am fine. Those beatings did not do me any harm."

Are you sure? You don't know how your life would have been if you had not been beaten, or if you had been allowed to wear your glasses while playing outside.

When we accommodate a person's disability, we are not "letting them get away with" something. When people who have a disability are competent and capable of doing whatever they want to do, it is not because they are "faking" a disability. It is because they know what they need to lead good, perhaps even wonderful lives. It is time for TAB society and its institutions to stop putting up barriers and practice real inclusion. Stop telling people what they need. Ask them — and then listen to the answers.

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