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Herb Paine: On Disability And 'Walking' In Someone Else's Shoes

(Photo courtesy of Herb Paine)
Herb Paine is the president of Paine Consulting Services in Phoenix.

It's one thing to say, “Walk a mile in my shoes!” When you’ve got shoes and can walk and run, the challenge is relatively easy to accept.

But what if the invitation comes from a passenger in a wheelchair? Or a wounded veteran? What do you say then to such an appeal?

The public mockery during this year's presidential campaign of a reporter with a congenital joint condition is a troubling reminder of how far we have to go to fulfill the expectations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s been 26 years since its inception.

Sure, many have recoiled at the insensitivity of the behavior but beyond good manners and propriety we may wonder why and how the disabled still can be limited and segregated from full participation in the activities of daily life or, even worse, demeaned.

I’ve worked alongside disabled people and worked on their behalf, and what I know is that disability is a relative term. Many of my disabled friends are able in ways far different and better than me.

For example, I've watched a young woman with a spinal cord injury paint a landscape with a brush in her mouth. I cannot do the same with my hands. I have worked with a quadriplegic executive who is as steely as his wheelchair in advocating for the rights of his peers. He is sharper at his craft.

Think about it. Nearly 12 percent of people in Arizona are classified as having a disability, visual, hearing, ambulatory, or cognitive. Then add the fastest growing cohort of our population— age 60 and over— many of whom may become functionally limited. Each has unique needs and gifts.

In the end, each of us is limited. The difference is only a matter of degree.

Is it really we who are limited, or is it the stairs that society places in the way of a wheelchair or the size of a door that we do not enlarge that limits the fullest expression of one’s life?

It is imperative to understand that the disabled go along each day with tenacity despite the limits placed before them. It is only fitting and proper that we match them with an equal commitment to break down those walls. It might even help if we rode a mile in their chairs!

Herb Paine is a consultant and social critic.