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Stop Making Degrading Assumptions About People With Disabilities

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A dog leads a young woman onto a bus and helps her to find a seat. She sits, takes a book out of her bag and begins to read.

A student in a wheelchair rolls up a ramp, through an automatic door and into a class. He stands and walks to a seat at a desk.

A young woman who has Down Syndrome walks onto the catwalk, along with the other high fashion models. She and the other models are wearing high heels, dramatic makeup and are dressed in a designer's gowns.

woman reading bus
(Photo: Arctic-Images via Getty Images)

Is there something wrong here?

I think there is. I think the fact that these scenarios make people stop and stare or scratch their heads is a problem. But the problem is not with the people in the scenarios, it is with the rest of us.

A great deal of humour is based on something unexpected happening. As a fan of the Just for Laughs gags, I can't help but laugh when the police officers suddenly start to kiss one another or the tree takes off like a rocket. I have stopped laughing when the blind person's "big reveal" is that he can see.

It is time that we understand that there is a great deal of variability and diversity in every so-called sector or group. People who are called blind may have low vision and be able to see in some situations, but not in others. Some may be able to see things held close to their eyes, but be unable to see well enough to walk unaided down the side walk. They may be able see things in the periphery of their vision but not things held directly in front of them. This is not new nor is it particularly unusual for those with low vision of various kinds.

As soon as a person is given a label such as blind, deaf, disabled, etc., society begins to make assumptions.

In my family, there is a person who was unable to hear certain male family members but could hear the women and girls quite clearly. We joked about her selective hearing, but in fact, the timbre and pitch of voices can make a big difference in their audibility. She was not being obstreperous (at least not in this case), she was simply among those people who are hard of hearing -- in her own fashion.

Most of us enjoy our independence, including our mobility. We would rather not give it up if we don't need to. The person who uses a wheelchair only when he needs to is not unique and is not cheating. Yes, he has a wheelchair emblem on his car. And yes, he can walk as far as the shop he parked in front of. But no, he cannot walk to the end of the parking lot.

Madeline Stuart is a young women who is going places. A runway model who has launched her own line of clothing, she is showing the fashion industry, and the rest of us, that the assumptions we make about people with Down syndrome do not apply.

madeline stuart
Model Madeline Stuart (L) walks the runway wearing during New York Fashion Week: The Shows on Sept. 13, 2016 in New York City. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images)

As people in the autism community have said, "Once you have met someone who has autism, you have met one person with autism." As soon as a person is given a label such as blind, deaf, disabled, etc., society begins to make assumptions. This is as unfair as it is to make assumptions based on a person's race or gender. Remember when women couldn't vote? No? Well, the assumptions were that they were poorly educated, not capable of critical thinking, irresponsible, did not care and that the men in their families would take care of this important duty on their behalf.

I do not have the space to write about the harms caused by racial profiling -- assumptions made based upon classifying people because of a social construct that provides absolutely no information about who people are or what they do.

Stereotypes are powerful ways in which we see the world; they are very much with us. But, most of us have gone beyond the notion of jobs that can be performed only by men or only by women, and that race is something that is a predictor of behaviour of any kind. Why have we not begun to approach our assumptions around disability? Stereotyping is stereotyping, whether we make assumptions about people based upon their gender, race, age, class or disability. It is time to stop making harmful generalizations. Stereotyping can only take away the respect and dignity each one of us deserves.

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