Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

I’m getting a service dog. So what?

I’m paraplegic. Actually, I’m a "low-level" para. I’m getting a service dog. And I’ve received more grief from the disability community about it than I thought was possible. This surprised me and saddened me.

People are asking in a nearly accusatory tone, "Why are you getting a service dog?" I want to respond to that question with another question: "Why are you using that wheelchair?" "Why are you using that cane?" "Don’t you read lips?"

People are questioning me, questioning my disability, questioning my way to deal with my disability. What about consumer control?

Who’s to say that my service dog is to assist me with my physical disability? Perhaps it’s to help me with seizures, or a mental illness, and I’d rather not disclose that. The impact of disclosing a "non-visible" disability, even within our own community, tends to have huge repercussions — not always positive.

A friend of mine who’s also a para has applied for personal assistant services through our state program. He received grief from colleagues. "You’re a para, you don’t need a personal assistant!"

It’s the same kind of criticism I’m getting.

I find it distressing to realize that there’s a lot of prejudice within our own community. We’re asking the world at large to accept us, yet we don’t pay much attention to our own brothers’ and sisters’ needs. Folks in wheelchairs forget that accessibility means more than ramps and curb cuts. The Deaf community tends to remain within itself. We often make fun of folks with mental illnesses or with cognitive disabilities. And the list goes on.

This is not right.

What hurts the most about this is that in our community, in the independent living movement, we pride ourselves on being different from other organizations "out there". We’re supposed to be among friends, in a safe haven — a place where we can be ourselves, without feeling the pressure to conform to other’s preconceived ideas of what our disabilities (should?) involve.

Yet too often that isn’t what happens.

Why can’t we be more accepting and openminded about other’s disabilities?

I challenge readers to take a serious look at how you act and react in your interactions with folks that have different disabilities than your own. Become aware of the barriers you have built. Break down those barriers. We all have growing up to do.

Because we really can’t expect society to break down the barriers that we maintain ourselves.

This article originally published in Ragged Edge