Just say ‘hi’ and make someone’s day

Family AffectionA few days ago, I was in a hotel lobby and walked by an older woman sitting in a wheelchair. She had a far-away look in her eyes that told me she was not very aware of her surroundings.

I said “hello” to her, as I would to anyone I passed by. She seemed somewhat taken aback and it took a moment for her to look in my direction and greet me. I thought it likely that it was rare for her to be acknowledged by strangers.

I have often thought that the elderly have much in common with people who have disabilities. They are “different,” and have special needs. So we send them to nursing homes and assisted living facilities where they live out their days in isolation.

The same is true for people who are poor. We sit in our cars at traffic lights and ignore the homeless person standing on the corner, wishing they would go to the shelter and stop asking for money.

More visibility

For many decades, we sent people with disabilities to live in isolated institutions in rural areas. Fortunately, that trend has reversed and most states are moving folks into home-like settings in residential neighborhoods.

As a result, it’s becoming more common to see people with disabilities in everyday situations. There’s the sacker with Down Syndrome at the grocery store. There’s the little boy with cerebral palsy moving haltingly down the aisle to his seat on an airplane. There’s the non-ambulatory girl being carried by her mother to the hotel dining room.

Even though people with disabilities are more visible, many people are uncertain as to how to react to them.  I noticed this when I would take Uncle Melrose, who had an intellectual disability, to McDonald’s or to other public places. Many folks – children especially — stared at his twisted back and small head.

But Melrose was delighted to be around people and in the mainstream of life. He waved at the people he passed and reveled in their company.

Expecting to be ignored

J. David Smith, who teaches in the Department of Specialized Education Services at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, writes about his experiences interacting with people who live in group homes.

In Ignored, Shunned, and Invisible: How the Label “Retarded” has Denied Freedom and Dignity to Millions, Smith writes that the people he encountered seemed to expect to be ignored.

“As I approached the front entrance (of the home), I met the gaze of people sitting on the porch and standing on the lawn and around the doorway. As I have found in similar places, they appeared to be surprised, if not startled, when I spoke to them. They seemed to expect that they would be unnoticed, not seen, to be socially invisible…

“The real problem of being African American, or poor, or old, or having an intellectual disability in the United States lies in not being seen as an individual human being.”

No one likes to be ignored, no matter who we are or what condition we’re in. So say “hello” to the next elderly or poor or disabled person you run across. Regardless of whether they respond or not, you’ll make their day.