Disabled doesn’t mean incapable

Posted: December 13, 2012

Individuals with disabilities and their families strive for acceptance in today’s society


Thinking back, Lisbeth Vest Armstrong, former special education teacher, can remember the hurtful actions from students toward peers who had disabilities as they walked through the school.

“They would get to our classroom and they would go to the farthest part of the hallway,” said Armstrong. “Sort of like if they got close to the door, they might catch it. Kids were very cruel.”

Armstrong has since spent nearly 30 years as director of program services at the Hammer Organization, a Wayzata based nonprofit devoted to assisting individuals with developmental disabilities.

“Schools are a very difficult place for an individual with a disability to be, and I think it’s changing,” said Armstrong. “Young people now are far more accepting of people with disabilities than they used to be.”

Historically, attitudes towards individuals with disabilities have often been negative. However, opinions seem to be rapidly progressing to acceptance in many communities and countries all over the map. However this hasn’t always been the case. Weaving their ways into different societies and stretching over time, multiple instances of persecution against people with disabilities have sprung up, many going ignored or unnoticed at times, including a program from the mid-twentieth century run by the German Nazi party where an estimated 250,000 were killed.

In America today, citizens are fighting prejudices and discrimination one issue at a time. Recently, advocacy groups for people with disabilities lobbied and successfully got legislation passed which took the word “retard” out of all Minnesota state documents.

Individuals with disabilities find words such as this one hurtful and offensive, as Armstrong explained.

“These are people just like you and me, and they have feelings just like you and me,” said Armstrong. “Their hearts break.”

On a national level, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was passed, setting new standards in building regulations to accommodate physically disabled.

Minnehaha Academy had to make changes to its buildings according to the new law. At the North Campus, the gym and chapel had to be brought up to code, and three elevators were added to the school. Librarian Bonnie Morris uses them everyday.

In 1988, Morris was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). Multiple sclerosis affects Morris’s balance and takes away any feeling in the bottom of her feet.

Morris says the elevators are extremely helpful, making it so that she no longer has to walk up three flights of stairs before work, which could potentially worsen her symptoms.

Morris finds solace in handicap parking spaces and ramps instead of difficult stairs, too, making many buildings more accessible to her. Morris has also had negative experiences associated with these: strangers often becoming annoyed with her, thinking she does not qualify to park in a marked spot. She can use her cane to silently contradict them with the proof they need.

Junior Bridget Winchester, however, has never noticed negative reactions with her cheerful 9-year-old brother Oliver, a third grader with Down Syndrome.

Most people smile at them in an accepting way when they walk by. Winchester has never really seen any bad or unwanted attitudes towards Oliver, however she believes it can sometimes be hard for younger children to understand at first due to the physical nature of the condition.

While some opinions stay the same, others have vastly improved, embedding the hope in families and individuals with disabilities that people will begin to hear what they are trying to share. Though it is a relatively slow race, many, including Armstrong, know it is important to continue their efforts.

“My life has been enriched by people with disabilities,” said Armstrong. “They teach me about life everyday.”

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