This past two weeks I've been bombarded with political correctness (if there is such a term-if not there should be) vs. common human courtesy. You've been preached to enough, by me, about disability etiquette; how to respect people with disabilities, not be condescending and to see all people as just people.
At face value, that's great, the trouble happens when you second guess, or someone else misinterprets, your actions. I'll try to explain.
The first encounter I had with having my own personal polite motives come into question was a few months ago. This is what started me thinking about practicing what I preach in relation to just doing what comes naturally and using the good manners my parents instilled in me. I was invited to lunch with a group of people, one of which was a man of small stature. Let me tell you, for real, the term "small stature" is the right one to use. Any of the old demeaning words like dwarf and midget are just that, demeaning - don't use them.
We get to the restaurant and I'm the first one to the door. As I would naturally do, I held the door open so the rest of my party could go in. Didn't I get the evil eye from that man. My motivation was not to open the door because I was taller or didn't think he could. It's what I do because I'm nice.
So, I had my first taste of right move/wrong time or wrong move/right time. I'm not sure which but whatever it was, I guess I made the wrong choice.
A few weeks ago, now that I know all that there is to know ... I'm walkin' the walk and talkin' the talk, thinking I'm the queen of politically correct choices, when I slam into the wall of "what do you do?" While at a seminar about disabilities, a man I had just met a few days earlier, dropped an armload of paperwork. My gut reaction was to bend down and help him pick them up as I would do for anyone. All of a sudden I stopped short. It hit me that the man used a wheelchair and he may misinterpret my niceness as something evil.
Along with the Jeopardy theme, the words, "ask before helping, ask before helping" echoed in my head, so I did. The response I got was a very curt "Of course, I want help."
Slammed again, I just can't win, because if someone were "walking" by and dropped paperwork, I would have just smiled and started to help collect the papers.
Why the double standard? Why think and rethink my course of action before taking any action at all?
The kicker of all kickers happened to me last week, while at a district meeting for my church in Rochester. I add the where and why because it's important. This meeting was a three-day event. On the first day, I noticed a woman of small stature and she looked very familiar to me. I said nothing and just tried to place where I knew her from - maybe one of these church things or maybe at a disability conference - not because she has a disability, but because those are the two things I would attend where I would casually meet people.
The second day, same thing.
Last day, last chance.
Now I've walked up to people I thought I had met previously, and said, "You look so familiar, have we met?" I'm sure most of us have done that at one time or another. Sometimes you get a response like "I saw you, too, I think we met at ... " or "Hmm, I don't think so."
Guess what I did? Nothing. Why? Because I was afraid that if we had not met before she would think I thought all people with her disability "looked" the same. That's not true, I never remember a face and I never remember a name. Whether you have a disability or not, my brain does not save that information.
The moral of the story is ...? Thinking about it now, I answered that for myself, without realizing it, in the first paragraph of this column. People are just people. Neither you, nor I, nor anyone else can predict how anyone will react to your actions. My advice is that if your motives are pure and clean and you have no hidden agenda and no feelings of "superiority" or pity, act as you normally would. They are who they are and you are who you are.