Category Archives: The Disabled

Disabled and Nearly Invisible

Bob Bob Aronson

(Yes, we cover disabled permits, disabled parking and disability shopping carts)

Tdisabled cartoonhis is a blog about what it means to be disabled, who can claim that designation and what the rest of us can do to make life easier for those who fall into that category.

As an old journalist I am a pretty good observer.  I often see things that others do not see because my former profession taught me to look for things that are out of place or just don’t make sense.  Here’s one of them.  There are millions of disabled people in the world, maybe  close ot a billion  — yet they are often not seen or, to be honest, they are ignored.  “Why,” you ask?  Well,  year after year, survey after survey reveals that the average, healthy person is uncomfortable around disabled people. They are afraid of saying or doing the “wrong” thing so instead they do nothing.

Sometimes it is difficult to know who is and who isn’t disabled. Almost without fail the word disabled brings to mind the image of a person in a wheelchair.  Even the blue disabled permits you see hanging from rearview mirrors or embossed on parking signs are based on the wheelchair image and that, of course, reinforces the stereotype.

permit tag We have come to expect that if you have a disabled permit you are very likely in a wheelchair and if you are in a wheelchair it is quite likely you are unable to walk. At least that’s the logic that’s applied.  The result is that disabled people who can walk get a lot of “dirty looks.”  You have all seen it happen and probably reacted negatively to the sight of a man or woman who parks her car in a disabled spot, hangs the placard from the mirror and walks into the store without so much as a limp. It is common for people to jump to the conclusion that this person is cheating on the permit hanging from the mirror.   Some are even verbally assaulted for using a disabled parking spot when they don’t need one. about 15 years ago a poll revealed that there were 26 million Americans considered to have a severe disability and only 7 million of them use  wheelchairs, canes, crutches or walkers (U.S. Department of Commerce).  I am one of those healthy looking disabled persons.
At 6’4” and 200 pounds I look fit enough, despite my gray beard, to walk a long way.  Well, I am not in the least bit fit and cannot walk very far because I have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which means I get out of breath with even minimal exertion.  Sometimes walking from the disabled parking space to the door of the store (a hundred feet or so) will cause me to stop to rest, but there are other disabilities, too. Some require wheelchairs, some don’t.

Upon researching this topic I was surprised to learn from the U.S. Census Bureau that about 56.7 million people — 19 percent of the population had disabilities in 2010.  We will break that down into specific categories later.

I always like to start my blogs with a definition of terms but the term ”Disabled” is very broad which makes it difficult to define. Finally, though, I selected three definitions because they seem to cover every angle of the subject.

The  Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an individual with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.

statute imageThe Social Security Administration says that to be considered disabled, individuals must have an impairment, either medical, psychological, or psychiatric that keeps them from being able to do substantial gainful activity (SGA). The impairment must have prevented SGA for at least 12 months, or be expected to prevent the individual from doing SGA for at least 12 months.

And, finally — Federal and state statute — the law books.  Federal laws define a person with a disability as “Any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.”  These impairments include walking, talking, hearing, seeing, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks, and caring for oneself.

Who Is Disabled?

For obvious reasons older Americans are most likely to be disabled.  If you are 80 or over you are eight times more likely to be disabled. If you are from 15 to 24 years old the chance of having a severe disability is one in 20.

What are the most common disabilities?

  • About 8.1 million people had difficulty seeing, including 2.0 million who were blind or unable to see.
  • About 7.6 million people experienced difficulty hearing, including 1.1 million whose difficulty was severe. About 5.6 million used a hearing aid.
  • Roughly 30.6 million had difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or used a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker.
  • About 19.9 million people had difficulty lifting and grasping. This includes, for instance, trouble lifting an object like a bag of groceries, or grasping a glass or a pencil.
  • Difficulty with at least one activity of daily living was cited by 9.4 million noninstitutionalized adults. These activities included getting around inside the home, bathing, dressing and eating. Of these people, 5 million needed the assistance of others to perform such an activity.
  • The final inconvenience suffered by the disabled is that they are also monetarily handicapped. Adults age 21 to 64 with disabilities had median monthly earnings of $1,961 compared with $2,724 for those with no disability.  Those figures are from 2010, the last U.S. Census.

So, why do you need to know all of this?  Because I believe disabled people are almost invisible.  We don’t make much of a fuss about much of anything.  We don’t have huge conventions or demonstrations and we don’t demand very much from anyone.  For the most part we just want to be treated fairly, equally and with respect.

My experience as a disabled person mirrors that of others with the same diagnosis.  Most people just ignore us and they do so because they don’t know what to do.  In the supermarket the other day I was on my mobility scooter slowly going up the aisle to the jams and jellies.  Directly in front of me and stopped on the other side of the aisle was a woman with a regular shopping cart.  She looked up saw me and said, “Oh my God, I’m sorry,” turned her cart around and went the other way.  I have no idea why she did that or what she was sorry about.

Some people are uncomfortable talking with people with disabilities for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing and some people feel sorry for people with disabilities, and assume that they are bitter about their condition.  The fact is that people with disabilities are just like anyone else.  They learn to cope and lead their lives in as productive a manner as possible.

A recent public opinion survey in Great Britain revealed that Two-thirds – 67 per cent – of those surveyed said that they would worry about speaking about disability in front of a disabled person, with many worrying they would say something inappropriate or use an offensive term by mistake —  so what do they do?  They totally avoid contact with disabled persons.
Obviously ignoring people is of no help to them so what do you do?  This list from the Diversity shop struck me as quite helpful.

  1. Speak directly rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter who may be present.
  2. Offer to shake hands when introduced. People with limited hand use or an artificial limb can usually shake hands and offering the left hand is an acceptable greeting.
  3. Always identify yourself and others who may be with you when meeting someone with a visual disability. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking. When dining with a friend who has a visual disability, ask if you can describe what is on his or her plate.
  4. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen or ask for instructions.
  5. Treat adults as adults. Address people with disabilities by their first names only when extending that same familiarity to all others. Never patronize people in wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.
  6. Do not lean against or hang on someone’s wheelchair. Bear in mind that people with disabilities treat their chairs as extensions of their bodies. And so do people with guide dogs and help dogs. Never distract a work animal from their job without the owner’s permission.
  7. Listen attentively when talking with people who have difficulty speaking and wait for them to finish. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, or a nod of the head. Never pretend to understand; instead repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond.
  8. Place yourself at eye level when speaking with someone in a wheelchair or on crutches.
  9. Tap a person who has a hearing disability on the shoulder or wave your hand to get his or her attention. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly, and expressively to establish if the person can read your lips. If so, try to face the light source and keep hands, cigarettes and food away from your mouth when speaking. If a person is wearing a hearing aid, don’t assume that they have the ability to discriminate your speaking voice. Never shout to a person. Just speak in a normal tone of voice.
  10. Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions such as “See you later” or “Did you hear about this?” that seems to relate to a person’s disability.

Effective communication can mean the difference between the success and failure of any given project, job or effort.  It is always important to give some extra thought to what you want to communicate and that is particularly true when working with groups of disabled persons.

The State of Illinois Department Of Human Services developed this list of tips on how to best communicate with those who have disabilities.

  1. The most important thing to remember when you interact with people with disabilities is that they are people.
  2. Their disability is just one of the many characteristics they have. People with disabilities have the same needs we all do: first and foremost among them is to be treated with dignity and respect.
  3. When you interact with people with disabilities, focus on their abilities, not their disabilities. People with disabilities are unique individuals who have a wealth of knowledge, skills, talents, interests, and experiences that add tremendous diversity, resourcefulness, and creative energy to our society.
  4. Remember, people with disabilities may do things in different ways than people without them however, they can achieve the same outcomes.

General Etiquette Tips

  1. Practice the Golden Rule. Treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Think of the person first, not their disability. Don’t shy away from people with disabilities – relax and be yourself
  2. Always Ask Before Giving Assistance. Just because a person has a disability, they don’t necessarily need or want your assistance. Never help someone without first asking them.
  3. One woman recalls: “When I walked on crutches, I was once knocked down by two little old ladies who were going to ‘help’ me walk on an icy sidewalk. Without asking, they came up, grabbed me, threw me off balance, and down I went!”
  1. Think Before You Speak. Avoid using labels when you speak – they are offensive to everyone, including people with disabilities.
  2. Avoid Showing Pity or Being Patronizing. People with disabilities aren’t victims. As a person in a wheelchair said, “I am not a wheelchair victim. Wheelchair victims are the people I run into with my footrest at the supermarket.”
  3. When you talk to a person with a disability, don’t use pet names, such as “honey”. It is also very disrespectful to pat people with disabilities on the head or talk down to them as though they were children.

Interacting with People with Disabilities

  1. When you interact with people with disabilities, talk directly to them, not to their companions, aides, or interpreters. I am always amazed when Robin and I are on an outing and stop at a restaurant where I have to leave my scooter to walk in. Often the Maitre D’ will ask Robin, “Can he walk, in.”  What am I, a potato?  Here are some other ways to interact with people with specific types of disabilities:
  2. communicatingWhen you interact with someone who is Deaf or Hard of Hearing, remember that some individuals may be able to hear, some may be able to lip read, while others prefer to use sign language or assistive technology. Ask them how they prefer to communicate.
  3. When you interact with someone who is blind or visually impaired, always introduce yourself and let them know when you are leaving. You may offer your arm or elbow as a guide if they request assistance but never push, pull or grab the individual. Don’t pet or distract a guide dog. The dog is responsible for its owner’s safety and is always working – it.
  4. When you interact with someone who uses a wheelchair, do not push, lean on, or hold the person’s wheelchair. Try to put yourself at eye level when talking with someone in a wheelchair.
  5. When you interact with someone with a cognitive disability, speak to the person in clear, simple sentences. Be patient with them and give them time to communicate with you.
  6. When you interact with someone with a speech impairment, allow them as much time as they need to communicate. Be respectful and avoid trying to finish their sentences.

People First language

Always use positive, people first language that empowers rather than marginalizes people with disabilities.

Here are some examples of offensive language and language that should be used:


This next section is a cut and paste from a website.  The format simply won’t adjust to WordPress so I apologize for the poor placement, but I’m sure you will figure it out and get the meaning.  Thank you.

Offensive                                                                                Preferred

Birth defect                                        Person who is disabled since birth, congenital disability

Cerebral palsied                                 Person who has cerebral palsy

Cripple                                                            Person who needs mobility assistance

Deaf and Dumb, Deaf Mute              Person who is deaf and does not speak

Deformed                                           Person who has a physical disability

Emotionally disturbed                                   Person with an emotional disability

Handicapped                                      Disabled person

Hunchbacked                                     Person with a spinal curvature

Insane, deranged, deviant                 Person with a mental illness

Midget, Dwarf                                     Person who is small in stature

Mongoloid                                          Person who has Down Syndrome

Normal                                                Non-disabled, able-bodied

Retarded                                             Person with a cognitive disability

And, finally.  Disabled permits, disabled parking and mobility shopping carts.permits and licenses

First the permits.  Disabled parking permits are reserved for those who have been certified as such by a qualified physician.  Almost all states have the same criteria for issuing these permits and they include:

  1. The applicant named is legally blind or is a disabled person with a permanent disability that limits or impairs his/her ability to walk 200 feet without stopping to rest.
  2. Inability to walk without the use of or assistance from a brace, cane, crutch, prosthetic device, or other assistive device, or without assistance of another person. If the assistive device significantly restores the person’s ability to walk to the extent that the person can walk without severe limitation, the person is not eligible for the exemption parking permit.
  3. The need to permanently use a wheelchair.
  4. Restriction by lung disease to the extent that the person’s forced (respiratory) expiratory volume for 1 second, when measured by spirometry, is less than one liter or the person’s arterial oxygen is less than 60 mm/hg on room air at rest.
  5. Use of portable oxygen.
  6. Restriction by cardiac condition to the extent that the person’s functional limitations are classified in severity as Class III or Class IV according to standards set by the American Heart Association.
  7. Severe limitation in a person’s ability to walk due to an arthritic, neurological, or orthopedic condition.
  8. Legally Blind (This is the only disability an Optometrist can certify.)

Physicians are put on notice in most states that their responsibility is a great one.  Most applications warn applicants and physicians that the permits are only for those people who are severely mobility impaired. Any physician who signs an application for someone who is not eligible can be fined $1,000 or one year in jail or both. All applications are tracked by computer and the number signed by specific physicians can be reviewed. Any person who applies and is not eligible can be fined the same as a physician.go to jail

Anyone who obtains or uses a permit that does not belong to them can be charged with a second degree misdemeanor – $1000 fine or up to 6 months in jail. Improper use of the permit is now twice the fee of a disabled parking violation. This should deter people from loaning their permits to family members.  It does not matter if you are running an errand for the person with a disability. If the person with a disability is not present — the fine is $1000.

Disabled parking is designated in that manner because some people need to get as close to the facility as possible.  There is usually a hefty fine for parking in a disabled spot if you do not have a permit hanging from your rear view mirror.  There is also a hefty fine for using a permit that was not issued to you.

WARNING  (this is the Florida law, but most states say the same thing. “Any person who knowingly makes a false or misleading statement in an application or certification commits a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in section 775.082 or 775.083, F.S.  The penalty is up to one year in jail or a fine of $1,000 or both.”

Now that you know about the disabled Parking permits you should also know:

  • It is not OK to park in a disabled spot just to use the ATM real quickly.
  • It is not ok to park in a disabled spot and leave the disabled person in the car while you run into the store.
  • It is not ok to use someone else’ permit
  • The laws offer no exceptions for parking in a disabled parking spot so it is not ok to park, run in to drop off your Wife’s lunch and leave again.

And finally, mobility shopping carts.mobility shopping carts

As far as we can determine there is no law requiring only disabled people ride the shopping carts provided by some stores, it is generally a common courtesy to leave the carts charged so a disabled person can use one when he/she needs it.  It is unlikely that store officials will ask people who ride their carts if they are in fact disabled.  Unfortunately there are many who do ride them for any one of a number of reasons, the least of which is having a disability.  I wish people who weren’t disabled would leave the carts for those of us who are and really can’t get around without one.  Children should be told in no uncertain terms that the carts are for people who have great difficulty walking, they are not to be ridden for the pleasure of the child.

Anyone who rides a supermarket or shopping center cart should return it to its original spot and plug it in so it is ready for the net disabled person who needs to use it.

bobaronsonBob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s over 4,000 member Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs. You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at  And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.  You can register to be a donor at  It only takes a few minutes.

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