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Disabled, but not Handicapped

By Marc Fiedler

Significant improvements have been made at Harvard during the past year on behalf of the University's small but gradually increasing population of disabled students. Many students, however, are unaware of these changes and of the people for whom they were developed. Such ignorance is one of the most difficult barriers for the disabled to overcome.

Precisely how many physically impaired students are enrolled at Harvard is difficult to determine; many disabled people choose not to be identified as such. But there are now at least a dozen undergraduates with major sensory or ambulatory disabilities.

Being in a wheelchair, I am occasionally asked whether there is any distinction between the terms "disability" and "handicap." The former refers specifically to a condition of physical impairment such as paraplegia (paralysis of the lower limbs), deafness or blindess. The term handicap, however, can be defined more generally as anything that substantially impedes normal activity. The two concepts need not be synonymous. A person in a wheelchair, when provided with a barrier-free environment (e.g., curb cuts, ramps, accessible toilet facilities, lowered telephones, drinking fountains and elevator buttons) may experience no handicap whatsoever. In contrast, a shopper wearing elevator shoes and carrying several bulky packages may not have a physical disability but certainly would be handicapped.

The most restrictive handicaps that disabled students encounter at Harvard are primarily of two varieties: architectural and attitudinal. Many of Harvard's facilities are inaccessible, presenting us with difficulties not only in entering them but in using them as well. As one might expect, the University's numerous old buildings, the uneven brick sidewalks and the maniacal automobile traffic in the Square are a nightmare-come-true for a person in a wheelchair.

A concerted effort to improve Harvard's overall accessibility and to provide comprehensive services to disabled students was begun last year. A student organization called ABLE (Advocating a Better Learning Environment) was founded to work collaboratively with the administration on establishing an effective program of disabled students' services. ABLE's recommendations acquired invaluable support last spring from a federal regulation implementing the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That act requires that recipients of federal financial assistance make all their programs (not all their buildings) accessible to disabled students and that discriminatory hiring and admissions policies be abolished.

An administrative coordinator of disabled students' services was appointed and a task force of administrators and students was created to supervise Harvard's compliance with the new regulation. Together they have been responsible for introducing many important improvement such as ramps, curb cuts, wheelchair lifting devices, an accessible microbus providing on-campus transportation for the ambulatory impaired and, soon, a tactile map for the blind. Numerous modifications have been planned for all the faculties over the next two years.

The second sort of obstacle the disabled experience here is the unfortunate attitude about us that is manifest in the frequent condescending treatment we receive from many, though certainly not all, able-bodied people. The latter are usually well-meaning and good hearted, but are all too often unwittingly insulting. People invade our privacy, address us with patronizingly false cheer and blithely disregard our expressed wishes. This behavior seems to be derived from the assumption that we are not fully functioning adults and therefore must be treated like patients or children, doing what others think best for us.

I find it very aggravating when a person grabs my wheelchair and starts pushing without first asking whether or not I need assistance. He does not realize that whatever brief benefit I might gain in terms of saving time or energy is quickly negated by less conspicuous effects: loss of a sense of independence and self-esteem. Because the disabled might do things more slowly or in a different way than able-bodied people does not mean that we cannot do them well or that we require help. On the contrary, some of us take a great deal of pride and pleasure in our various methods of adjusting to or compensating for out disabilities.

One student gleefully described her experience moving around in her wheelchair:

I love zooming down a hill or along a flat space with the breeze blowing through my hair. Going up hills like Plympton St., I love that feeling of bulldozer strength as my arms reach back on the wheels and push forward, reach back and push forward. I try and put a little flair in all my turns and grace in as much of my movement as possible. When I'm travelling at speed my hands do a little ballet on the rims of my wheels...I get in a rhythm of moving in the chair, my mind gets involved and I guess its something like meditating.

The most tactful thing to do if you want to help a disabled person is imply to ask if assistance is desired. We generally know our own needs and capacities better than anyone else and can indicate whether help is required and how it should be given. If you see a person with an ambulatory disability (e.g., using braces, crutches, a manual or motorized wheelchair) out on the street, it is very likely that he can fully take care of himself. When help is required to get up some stairs, open a door or reach an item in the dining hall, many of us prefer to ask for it rather than to be asked.

But there are situations in which it is difficult for a disabled individual to initiate a request for assistance. A blind person, for example, may not be able to judge accurately when to cross the street, especially at unusually shaped intersections or when there is a great deal of confusing noise. A guide dog isn't much help here; it is trained not to cross the street but rather to stop at the curb and wait for its master's next command. In a situation where it is hard for a blind person to discern when to cross a street, it may be equally troublesome to find a person to help him. Here an offer of assistance is most welcome.

The blind individual might only want to be told when it is safe to cross or he may want to help crossing, in which case the sighted person should allow the blind person to take hold of an elbow. One should never feed, pet or otherwise distract a guide dog unless expressly permitted by its master. Nor should one grab a blind person's cane or the arm holding it.

People who have hearing impairments usually receive verbal communication either by means of a hearing aid, by reading lips or by reading an interpreter's signs. If you are speaking with a person who is hard of hearing, it might be advisable to ask what he finds most audible. Talking with food, gum or a cigarette in your mouth makes it very difficult for another person to read your lips. If you are addressing a deaf person, it is polite to face him and not his interpreter.

Those who wish to help disabled people on a regular basis (e.g., read to blind students, push a wheelchair) may do so through the volunteer services of the Bureau of Study Counsel.

Disabled people are often asked to explain what is "wrong." This can be particularly offensive when asked out of the context of a conversation or when first being introduced to someone. I am not first and foremost disabled. Most people do not mind being asked about their disability when the subject comes up naturally. In those situations I prefer letting people who are curious know "what happened." They seem to feel more at ease when they understand why I am in a wheelchair.

It is easy, nevertheless, to get annoyed at repeating the same, often unpleasant, story again and again. This information is personal and someone may or may not want to volunteer it. You would not go up to a person and ask, "Hey, why are you divorced?"

Another question I'm frequently asked is how I manage to get along at Harvard. I can honestly say that being a disabled student is not terribly more difficult than being an able-bodied one. I know: I've spent two years here each way. Of course there are problems, but in general they are no more overwhelming than what the average student faces; they are merely different sorts of problems.

As a disabled person I don't demand any special consideration. I just want an equal opportunity to share in the programs and activities that my able-bodied peers enjoy. I want people to look beyond the wheelchair and see the person in it, to focus less on my disability and more on my abilities.

Disabled people can lead very full, productive and happy lives if given the opportunity. The recognition of this fact by those around us will help decide whether we will succeed. By modifying our own man-made physical environment, by providing required services and by rethinking our culturally-induced attitudes, we all can help the disabled become remarkable less handicapped.

Marc Fiedler 78 is president of ABLE, a student group Advocating a Better Learning Environment.

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