Advocacy 101: Standing up for yourself

Recently, I witnessed a little boy with autism having a behavior outburst. Luckily, the people around him knew the boy and had an awareness of his disability. They handled the little boy by talking to him softly until his mom, who had stepped out, returned to get him.

It's hard on people with disabilities as well as their families when behavior outbursts occur. It's even more difficult when it happens in the company of people who have no empathy for others. People can be quick to judge someone by what they see without knowing all the challenges that person may be facing.

A long time ago, before people with disabilities had fought for and won the rights that protect us from discrimination, we were hidden away from society. Before certain disabilities laws came in to play, if schools, restaurants and others places were not accessible, then people with disabilities were simply out of luck. We will never let that happen again.

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But even now, at the age of 44, I’m still faced with people who have never been taught disability awareness. Some try talking over me, as if I didn’t exist. That doesn’t work with me though, because I’m an advocate. I am a person first, before my disability, and I have no problem speaking up for myself. If someone chooses not to understand that, oh well, because I will not just sit back and be ignored.

I find some people are uncomfortable with the things they don't know about disabilities. As a public relations assistant at Goodwill Easter Seals Miami Valley, one of my primary functions is teaching disability awareness to new hires. I love this task, because I can tell when some people first meet me, they are kind of stand-offish; that's probably because they have never met or had to deal with anyone with a disability.

By the end of my session, let’s just say the new hires are not stand-offish anymore. I like connecting with them so they will feel comfortable asking me questions. I tell them if you want to know something about a person with a disability, just ask. It’s that simple. Most people with disabilities would rather you ask than assume.

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March is Disability Awareness Month. This is a perfect time to learn from people, organizations and agencies that assist people with disabilities. This is the month that my fellow advocates and I celebrate how far we have come as a people. There are more opportunities for us than ever.

You can make things even better by broadening your horizons and learning about disabilities. No person with a disability, their family members or friends want to be ridiculed by judgmental stares. There will be behavior outbursts sometimes, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's just a person being who he or she is. The best thing you can do is show compassion and try not to pass judgment.

As I always say, you may not have a disability right now — but keep living. Something may (will probably) go wrong with you, too. They’re part of the human condition. Why not take the month of March to educate yourself? Hopefully, you will be so moved by what you learn that you will not be able to keep it to yourself, and you will also be spreading disability awareness everywhere you go.

Shari Cooper is one of our regular community contibutors.

Shari Cooper is one of our regular community contibutors.

People can be quick to judge someone by what they see without knowing all the challenges that person may be facing.

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