A mother's love sees what her child can do, despite his disability walker.

A mother's love sees what her child can do, despite his disability walker.

May 13, 2013
AUSTIN MARDON
SPECIAL TO THE WCR

I'm often asked about how we can make our society more inclusive and accessible for the disabled. There are obvious physical barriers for those who have physical disabilities. Those normally take some engineering or construction thought.

The important part of the equation is the thought part. Most of us who have no disabilities don't know, don't understand and, unfortunately, some don't care. Still, when dealing with individuals who have mobility issues, we all have a general understanding of what might be needed: ramps, elevators, accessible washrooms and the like.

When dealing with those of us, such as myself, who have invisible disabilities, almost everyone is clueless about what we need. Sometimes, those of us with mental illnesses aren't even sure ourselves what kind of accommodations we need.

Sadly, when we do venture out of our basement apartments and meet some kind of personal barrier, we may retreat back inside our shell, never to venture out again.

Many with mental illnesses segregate themselves from society out of fear. We are afraid of being embarrassed. We are afraid of being "found out." We are afraid of getting ill in public. We know that much of society is afraid of us. I have many times seen fear in someone's eyes when they find out I have schizophrenia.

So how can we truly be an inclusive society? First, we need to care. We need to care enough to educate ourselves about the disabled so we won't automatically be afraid of someone who is different. We need to be willing to be flexible and open to compromise.

DISABLED WIFE EXCLUDED

As an example, my wife and I were invited to attend a breakfast fundraiser for an organization that helps the disabled find employment. My wife is physically disabled and uses a walker. It can be difficult for her to manoeuvre in a very crowded meeting room between tables and chairs, so I always insist that she be placed near the aisle or door and make arrangements well in advance for her.

When we arrived, they had mistakenly placed us in the most inaccessible part of the room. It would have been very easy to simply move a couple of placards to an accessible spot for us. Instead, the organizers were unwilling to be flexible at all, and my wife spent the morning sitting in the car unable to attend the presentation. Compassion and flexibility are key.

An employer may need to allow someone who uses psychiatric medications to come in later in the morning because it can be hard to get started in the morning with such strong medications.

Those who are bipolar might need to take off once or twice a year to get their medication rebalanced. Those with schizophrenia might need a quieter work space.

We don't read body language well, so we often do better working online or over the phone. Someone who has had a brain injury or developmental disabilities might need more time to learn a job task, or they might have to be allowed to leave work early on days that they get too tired and consequently suffer cognitive deficits.

CHANGING NEEDS

There are lots of different accommodations that I need, and they can change on a daily basis.

An inconsequential one is that I need to sit on the back row in church. My symptoms can act up when people are right behind me. That's hard to explain to a church usher who asks you to move.

The most important point is that all disabled people are different, even between those with similar disabilities. We need to ask people what accommodations they need. We need to listen and respond appropriately when we are told what those accommodations are.

OPEN YOUR HEART AND MIND

We need to be flexible, compassionate, and open to learning. We need to be willing to compromise. We need to be willing to open our hearts to those who are different.

If we do so, we may find the best friends in the world, the most loyal employees we have ever had, the most grateful customers, the most faith-filled parishioners, the friendliest neighbours and some of us may even find a soulmate.

(Austin Mardon suffers from schizophrenia, is an advocate for the disabled and in 2007 received the Order of Canada for his advocacy. Contact: aamardon@yahoo.ca)