Service of What the Public Must Learn About People with Disabilities

September 12th, 2019

Categories: Assumptions, Disability, Perception

I suddenly went deaf in both ears and didn’t know why. It turns out it was a garden variety ear infection but I didn’t know that and spent three weeks in a silent world.

At the time I visited a boutique in Lenox, Mass. looking at blouses and a saleswoman came over. I assumed she’d said—“May I help you?” or something close. When I told her I was totally deaf and added “thank you, I’ll let you know if I need anything,” she looked at me with panic. I’ll never forget her expression of alarm.

You couldn’t tell by looking at me that anything was off kilter, yet this brief experience made me realize how people with permanent conditions must feel daily. So when Helen Rabinovitz suggested a post on what the public assumes about people with disabilities I accepted with enthusiasm.

This is what she wrote:

Lisa Rabinovitz with Ethan, the service dog she trained herself.

My 33 year old daughter has Cerebral Palsy. Lisa is beautiful, articulate and has a genius IQ. Yet people see her in a power wheelchair and assume she can’t communicate. It’s insulting that able bodied people think that people with disabilities are less than smart.

Rewind to middle school. My husband and I get called to the headmaster’s office three times. He said “Lisa isn’t trying,” or “She’s not participating,” for example. Finally on visit number three I said to him… “The problem is that her teachers see her wheelchair first and Lisa second. She’s smarter than they are so she’s bored!” No more visits to the office! When the school got computers, which were upstairs in a building with no elevator, administrators sat Lisa with an aide downstairs. She taught the aide how to use it.

High school…Lisa, her service dog and sister Rachael are in the hall and a teacher came over to chat. She spoke directly to Rachael and then said to be sure and tell Lisa what she’d said. Rae told her she could speak directly to Lisa. Embarrassed teacher!!

Just because a person uses a wheelchair or walker or crutches doesn’t mean they’re stupid. It’s important to treat everyone we meet, no matter how they get around, with the respect and consideration everyone expects.

Do you assume that if a person suffers from one affliction it impacts everything else about them? Are you uncomfortable around people with disabilities? Why do you think that is? What might be done to disabuse the public of their false notions about disabled friends, students, colleagues and strangers?


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12 Responses to “Service of What the Public Must Learn About People with Disabilities”

  1. Debbie Kunen Said:

    Debbie wrote on Facebook: It is discomfort usually because what we see is extremely unfamiliar and “unimaginable” for ourselves. Compassion? Perhaps. Fear? Most probably. Without proximity (as with most things foreign to us) pun intended, we don’t learn or lean into curiosity or interest in learning (unfortunately). Human weakness.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree that discomfort is probably caused by unfamiliarity, lack of education leading to false assumptions. I’ve seen other examples. At the deathbed of an in-law, visitors kept screaming at the old woman. They were told, “she hears perfectly, you don’t need to raise your voice,” and they’d again holler. Some assumptions die hard.

  3. EAM Said:

    I have a friend (teacher) who was assigned to a teenage girl with Cerebral palsy (she happened to be mute). She was highly intelligent and dismissed by classroom teachers. Her parents had to fight for her to get the same access as other students.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Helen Rabinovitz will surely relate to the parents of the child your friend worked with. As if it’s not hard enough to live day-to-day with family members, all of whom need attention, without also having to climb man-made hurdles to get help for a child with disabilities… goodness we’re not easy on one another. Empathy isn’t our strong suit.

  5. Martha Takayama Said:

    It seems awfully narrow, turned-in and self-centered, and intellectually difficient to (even in this year 3 of the Trump dystopia) to not be aware of the existence of and difficulties of those with handicaps or physical and or other limitaions. After all nature is not always either predictable nor perfect and disease and disabilities do not have any recognition of class, or socio-economic status. Furthermore we are constantly at war in various places in the world, subject to inordinate here-to-fore unseen climate disasters, ceaseless mass violence and massacres and then myriad ailments old, new and emerging. How is it possible not to think that “There but for the grace of whomoever go I?”

    Setting all that aside, what reason on earth is there to assume that mobility limitations, hearing aids, crutches, wheelchairs, or any other form of medical, mechanical, animal or human assistance indicates that a person is more or less competent to process information.

    I am fortunate to know Lisa and have known her remarkably capable service dog, Ethan [featured in the photo]. It never ocurred to me that either Lisa or the cavalier, solicitous and extremely capable and well-behaved Ethan, who as a certified service dog was her life aide, were less than extremley bright and intelligent. It is more disturbing that theoretically educated people who are specifically meant to engage professionally with´people with disabilities have such primitive notions about their abilities and their sensibilities. We must expect more from our fellow human beings.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I cannot tell you how often I say to myself “there but for the grace of God go I,” and if I’m having a bleak day, even more often.

    Empathy may not be an emotion we are born with. I think we need models. We’re not finding them among too many political figures who threaten to reduce Medicare and Social Security and to eliminate Medicaid and insurance coverage for expensive meds and and and and….

    I was at a motor vehicles office in upstate New York with my mother, years ago. She no longer drove but needed an up to date ID. [They nevertheless gave her a renewed license. She’d expected some other form of official ID]. The clerk could tell her hearing was faulty so instead of speaking more slowly and a little louder she began speaking to me. My mother was sharp and at the time an AARP volunteer. At tax time she filled out tax forms for NYC citizens until she was 89. [The service was free.] Being hard of hearing didn’t impact her brain.

  7. BC Said:

    Having had a year of neurology training, this is a non problem for me!

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Doctors such as yourself serve a crucial role in helping the public understand the realities about people with disabilities. It’s up to families to encourage empathy which seems to be out of style with many who control what insurance will pay for and how much life-saving meds cost these days.

  9. Jay H. Van Vechten Said:

    I became disabled myself, after a horrible fall in 2001. Now 18 years later I look back and realize how fortunate I was to only be in a wheelchair for two years, before two surgeries to replace both hips and lots of rehab. I now use a 3 wheel walker, which is as much a part of my leaving the confines of my bedroom as putting on pants and shoes. It is the first thing I grab…and hold onto.

    I have experienced great indignities when using wheelchairs in airports, in particular, when airport personnel talk over me to my wife, “Just let us know when he’s ready to board.” I always want to scream out, “Talk to me. I’m right here.” But I’ve learned some degree of self-control over the years.

    My foundation, the American Disabilities Foundation strives every day to level the playing field for people with challenges – be they physical, mental or both. Our annual Boating Beach Bash event attracts 6,000 guests annually, for a day of education, fun, partying and family enjoyment. There is nothing like it in the country.

    It is so nice to discover another advocate and to learn about your blog and activities. Good for you. Keep it up, with a special thanks to Debby for connecting us.

    Please think about joining us on Sunday, March 1. That’s when we’ll hold our 12th annual event.
    I am attaching last year’s summary release to give you a sense of the scope of what we do. Also, there are some links that will take you to our website and two of our many videos: and and

    Bless you.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your comment amplifies Helen Rabinovitz’s post. I was hoping that your experience in a wheelchair might have been different than Lisa’s.

    Lisa is fortunate to have her mother, Helen, and you to have your wife and the energy to lead a foundation and spectacular event every March. I cringe to think of those with no support family.

    I excerpted this quote from the press release you sent me about the event in Boca Raton, Florida: “‘Clearly,’ says Van Vechten, ‘we struck a chord in the disability world. What makes this event work is that it is totally free with no strings attached. Everything is taken care of from entry to the park, to a hot grilled lunch with all the trimmings. Our guests,’ he continues, ‘enjoy a concert with multiple national performing artists, full beach access thanks to mobility mats on the sand, the opportunity to meet dozens of exhibitors offering goods and services specifically geared to their special needs, a Kids Fun Zone for the little ones and, at the heart of the Bash, the opportunity to ride on one of 20 privately owned motor yachts, on loan for the day by members of local yacht clubs and marinas.'”

  11. Helen Rabinovitz Said:

    Jay please email me directly. I have asked Jeanne to send you my email address. Maybe we can do something positive together. Oh Lisa (very private) has no idea I wrote that post. Take care….Helen

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Ramona Flood brought this to my attention from a Facebook post by Beth Ellen Keyes:

    Sena Pottackel, an Indian American student in the NYU School of Professional Studies MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication, will take to the stage at Carnegie Hall, on September 20, 2019, to address the audience at the PR Council’s “Critical Issues of the Modern Workforce Forum.”

    Her presentation, “Badass Blind Girl Doing Good Through PR,” will share her life’s journey and the importance of creating disability inclusive workplaces.

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