I spent part of this weekend doing repair projects around the house. When we get knee deep into these tasks, it is easier to drive to one of several fast food restaurants nearby to grab lunch for my wife and me than it is to stop and prepare something at home. In fact, these weekend assignments are about the only time we eat fast food anymore. 

As I pulled into the restaurant parking lot, I observed a young man, probably about 30 years old, approaching the building. He was in an electric wheelchair, controlled by a joystick on the right armrest. He clearly had impairment, and while I don’t know the specifics of his condition, it restricted the full use of his arms and hands. I parked in front of the door as he rolled up to it on the sidewalk. As he was positioning himself in front of the door preparing to try to open it, it was apparent he may require some assistance. I expected to do that as I approached, until two employees appeared in the doorway. They had seen him and come out from behind the counter to open the door for him.

Score one for Taco Bell.

They held the door for him, and for me as well. As we approached the counter, the young man looked over his shoulder and told me to go ahead, as he was still deciding what he wanted. I told him I was doing the same. As we both stared at the menu board, it was my full intention to check with him to see if he was ready before I proceeded. Unfortunately, I never got the chance. As I was about to speak to him, a woman who had just entered the restaurant with her family waltzed between the two of us and stepped right up to the counter. 

I think the look on the face of the employee at the counter might have clued her in as to her transgression. She turned and looked at me with a circling hand motion that said, “Ok if I order?” Since she and her motley crew were already firmly ensconced at the register, I just nodded and shrugged. After all, when you are communicating with imbeciles, it is best to keep it simple. 

As they started to order it dawned on me; she took a moment to check with me, but she had never checked with the man who was technically in line ahead of me. She didn’t look at him, nor did she acknowledge him. The impaired man in the wheelchair was invisible to her.

I looked at him. He was staring at her. I can’t describe it as an angry look, rather one of resignation. It was a look that told me this has probably happened to him before.

Since Ms. Oblivion-Mayhem and her INCREDIBLY obnoxious children were taking so long to order (her daughter, around 12 or so, was having a temper tantrum, repeatedly yelling that they were “going to eat in the car” when she thought Mom was ordering for the dining room), I had a little time to ponder this incident. First, I recognized my own mistake in not directing her to the guy at the head of the line when she turned back to me for tepid approval. But beyond that came a greater realization.

This young man was making his way in a world where society has gone to great lengths to accommodate his needs, yet he exists in a culture where to many he remains invisible. Is it possible that our citizenry discounts his ability because of his perceived disabilities?

I think it is. 

We’ve spent a great deal of time in the workers’ compensation community over the years talking about the problem with the concept of disability. Lord knows I’ve come to detest the term. Impairment is the physical reality of one’s condition. Disability is the legal and mental construct we lay upon that impairment. Disability by its very definition is a negative term, implying an inability to contribute in a normal fashion. As I’ve written before, I’ve had the true honor of meeting very inspirational people who have through happenstance been the unfortunate recipient of severe impairment. I would not describe them as disabled in any way. Beyond the legal definitions, for me true disability is determined by how an impaired person chooses to define their limitations.

And perhaps it is also influenced by how others see (or don’t see) those who are impaired.

Accommodating the needs of those with physical and mental challenges should not equate with assumptions regarding their ability or disability. We should be cognizant not to unintentionally discount someone’s worth or capability because they require assistance or have special needs. And most importantly of all, we should focus on seeing people for who they are, rather than what classification they represent. Impaired does not automatically mean disabled, and it by no means should ever mean invisible.

Even if you are an imbecile with a truly obnoxious family.

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