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Diversity Includes the Differently-abled

Posted by on October 10th, 2017 Posted in: NLM Resources, Patient Engagement, Public Health
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“Inclusion Drives Innovation” is the theme of this year’s national awareness campaign about disabilities. The goal of highlighting October as National Disability Awareness Month is meant to draw our attention to the contributions made to the workplace, our communities and our families by people who have disabilities. To me, the word “disability” carries a negative and limiting label, and stigma with it. I prefer not to use that word. A friend of mine uses the term “differently-abled” to describe people living with physical or intellectual challenges. I like the word “differently-abled” because it reinforces my belief that we all have abilities, just in different areas. Have you ever had an experience where a challenge in one area of our life, caused you to grow or become stronger in another area? For example, my visually impaired friend Liz has shared with me since losing her sight, her sense of smell has become more enhanced.

Disability Awareness Month was created in 1945, when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week in October each year “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” The word “physically” was removed in 1962, to include the contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. In 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Did you know that it is estimated that 10% of people in the U.S. have a medical condition which could be considered a type of invisible disability?  The challenges people are dealing with may not be apparent. Conditions such as depression, learning disabilities, PTSD, chronic pain, cancer, etc…that are beneath the skin are difficult and can be debilitating. Perhaps that co-worker, store clerk, or customer service rep that was less than helpful has a challenge that is not visible?

Diversity and inclusion are current conversation and media topics as our country hears the latest news of travel bans and bathroom laws. With all of that in the news, I find myself immediately associating the topic of diversity with culture, ethnicity and sexual orientation. However, diversity and inclusion are also a key ingredient to a recipe for happy and motivated employees. According to a 2012 article in Harvard Business Review on what motivates employees,               “Whatever else each of us derives from our work, there may be nothing more precious than the feeling that we truly matter — that we contribute unique value to the whole, and that we’re recognized for it.”

In the past few years, I have been fortunate to have a friendship with my visually impaired, attorney friend Liz. She not only has added diversity, depth and color to my life, she also has taught me a few life lessons. Here’s what I have learned.

  1. Ask a differently-abled person what they need. Don’t assume you know what they need, because you read an article about it. Have you ever had the frustrating experience of being given a task at work that looks easy to someone not familiar with the intricacies of your world or your job, but is not easy at all, given circumstances you know and they don’t? How does this apply? I have learned that when we shop together, I ask if Liz wants me to describe the color and fabric. Does she need my help when getting money out of her wallet?
  2. All visually impaired people do not automatically know Braille and sometimes they can see some things. Liz was sighted most of her life, she has been progressively losing her vision for the last 9 years due to a degenerative eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa – the medical encyclopedia in MedlinePlus has some good background information on this eye disease. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001029.htm. Liz is able to read the screen of her smartphone (which has caused some people to question whether she is faking the blind thing), but in other settings what she can see is affected by color, contrast and the amount of light available. One time she even prevented my husband from driving the wrong way down a one-way street. But, that’s another story…
  3. Being relegated to a separate section in libraries or schools with the materials/equipment/services for the differently-abled, feels isolating. In some libraries there are separate spaces where the talking books and other materials for the visually impaired are located. Many differently-abled people want to be with everyone else. They want to be part of a community, be with friends, and feel that they are contributing with unique skills and talents. Because Liz has limited sight, I assumed she wouldn’t want to attend plays, go to museums, exercise at a gym, go shopping, or even be on a sports team. I was wrong.
  4. Enlist the help of and value the expertise of people who have experienced non-inclusiveness (even though the non-inclusiveness was not intentional) when planning for inclusivity. Ask a person who knows how it feels, rather than assuming you know what is needed to make them feel included. Creating inclusive materials, environments and experiences sometimes requires creativity. Consult with someone differently-abled as you plan a conference or create public programming.  I recently attended a city council meeting where I was impressed to hear our city counselor say how important it is that a member of the differently-abled community be part of the citizen task force that will advise the engineering team planning the renovation of Main Street.

NLM has some good resources about Disabilities.

Liz and her friend Nick, who is in a wheelchair were recently part of a Dragon Boat Festival race team here in Worcester, MA. The Dragon Boat festival was a celebration of the diversity of Worcester and its surrounding communities. CNN’s show United Shades of America (http://www.cnn.com/shows/united-shades-of-america ) spent a day with Liz, and filmed she and Nick as they practiced with their Dragon Boat team. CNN will air this show featuring Liz and Nick, this coming spring about the best and worst cities to live in if you are differently-abled. I took these pictures as they were being filmed on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester within walking distance to the Medical School.

Image of the author ABOUT Susan Halpin
I am a former health and wellness educator who joined the NNLM NER in August of 2016, Excited to be promoting the excellent resources developed by the NLM and to provide training for anyone who would like to access the free and trusted information the NLM offers.

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This has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012347 with the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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