By Tom Scott
United Spinal Association’s Disability Etiquette booklet has been distributed across the country to thousands of businesses, schools, and organizations to erase some of the misconceptions about people living with different types of disabilities. The booklet also helps ease the awkwardness that many experience when interacting with someone with a disability for the first time.
For someone like myself, who doesn’t have a disability but has been part of an organization such as United Spinal, that type of awkwardness goes away fairly quickly. Getting to know many of our members on a personal level at events over the years has really changed my perspective, in more ways than one. And I’m grateful for it. Too bad most people don’t have the opportunity to take a closer look–beyond a person’s wheelchair or disability. That’s probably one reason why Disability Etiquette is so popular with the public. It gets people to start looking at things a bit differently.
Having a different perspective opens your eyes to some pretty awful attitudes that you probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
A few years back, I accompanied one of our members who uses a wheelchair to a major league baseball game. We had to pick up the tickets at the stadium’s box office. When we got there, he greeted the woman behind the counter. She ignored him completely. Instead, she looked at me, smiled and said “hello”. He handed her the info to get the tickets. Again, she looked at me and thanked me. She then reached over my friend to hand me the tickets. Shrugging it off, he asked her the easiest route to get to our section. She continued looking in my direction, answering his questions as if I had asked them. I hadn’t said one word to this lady. It was amusing, but not. Finally, as we were about to leave, she leaned over, looked at my friend with her eyes popping out of her head as if she was talking to a 7-year-old and loudly and obnoxiously said, “I hope you have a good time at the game dear.”
This was a grown man; a well-educated man. Come to think of it, he probably had a better career and was more successful than this woman who handed out tickets at a ballpark. As we headed into the stadium I gave him a quick look and he knew exactly what was on my mind. “Yeah, I get that a lot,” he said.
This type of scenario plays out often. And I’m sure many of our members can relate to similar experiences. I don’t think most people act this way intentionally, they are just clueless on etiquette. That’s why it’s great to see Disability Etiquette make the rounds and get into the hands of people all over the country–which is a nice segue into some really good news I’d like to share.
United Spinal receives orders for bulk copies of Disability Etiquette from places far and wide. But we took special notice when a few orders came in from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The Pacific Fleet is the world’s largest fleet command, encompassing 100 million square miles––more than half the Earth’s surface––from the West Coast of the United States into the Indian Ocean. It consists of approximately 180 ships, nearly 2,000 aircraft and 125,000 sailors, marines and civilians.
I recently spoke with Kay Wakabayashi, a very nice woman from Hawaii who placed the orders, to find out what the Navy was doing with them. Kay is an equal employment opportunity specialist from the Office of the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Part of her job is to promote disability etiquette and change a few perspectives. It turns out the Pacific Fleet has been utilizing the booklet for years, distributing it to staff across the country and around the world. She told me that the Pacific Fleet is making a concerted effort to hire more people from the disability community. Part of this effort involves educating staff on best practices and the proper way to interact with people living with disabilities. Kay added that the Disability Etiquette booklet has helped break down attitudinal barriers and ensures a welcoming environment to prospective employees.
Sometimes when we take a closer look at orders coming in, we are surprised where our publications end up. So thanks Kay and the U.S. Pacific Fleet for putting Disability Etiquette to good use.