People are viewed in so many different ways in today’s world. Every Christian is called to reveal Christ’s love in how they see people in this world. I am focusing on inclusion for people who live with disabilities. We automatically know that someone who wears glasses, a hearing aid, uses a cane, crutches, or wheelchair requires some consideration. But there are also invisible disabilities such as a heart condition, cancer, colitis and migraines. Yet, none of these conditions make a difference in who the person is on the inside.
My disability happens to be a Muscle Disease called Myasthenia Gravis. I try not to let it slow me down, but for me to play basketball, run a race, or even jog is an impossible challenge. During class, sometimes my eyes will cross and it will be difficult to see even with my glasses. If I am writing or typing for an extended period of time my hand will lose it’s grip or my fingers will stiffen leaving me unable to continue. Having fallen down a flight of fifteen stairs to a cement floor more than once, I avoid stairs at all costs. So today, I will clarify some important ways you can view me and another Wartburg student, Nicholas Rohde a little more inclusively.
Michelle: What brought you to Wartburg?
Nicholas: “Here is the first place where I have lived where my disability is not a significant portion of who I am…yes it is still part of me, but I am accepted for who I am and not for who I appear to be. People at Wartburg see the essence of who I am. I’m 99% sure that they describe me as Nikolas Rohde, MDiv First year student from Rochester, Minnesota. My disability would not be a necessary part in their description of me. It would be more like an afterthought or at the most one of the last things people here would say about me. I like that the people of Wartburg talk about my personality and how they see me as a whole person.”
Nicholas went on to say that the most important thing is the way you respect him. “Treat me the same way you would treat anyone else. Don’t placate me. Be authentic and genuine with me. I can tell the difference. Be natural, it’s ok if you do something for me, like open a door if you have a free hand and I will help you when I can. Sometimes people on campus will forget that I have a disability and it becomes invisible to them. Then they say something or ask me to do something and all of the sudden they are embarrassed because they forgot.
Michelle: So do you appreciate it when people forget that you have a disability?
Nicholas: “It is not a simple yes or no answer. I want people to forget about my disability, but the reality is that it is still there and I still need help at times. I might require something different from 99% of the people in the room but, in that moment, do what is necessary to assist me as you would any other human being. Don’t make a big deal of it, just do it. In all the other moments when my disability doesn’t matter, then IT DOESN’T MATTER!”
Michelle: Is it all right with you if someone asks questions about how to be authentic and respectful of you?
Nicholas: “Yes, if you don’t know then ask, otherwise, if you assume the wrong thing you may appear to be disrespectful. This does not mean that you need to ask me about every little thing that comes up, but be authentic. If I don’t like what you are asking or implying by the question, trust me you will know. (He says with a wry smile.)
Michelle: How do you feel about people asking you about your disability?
Nicholas: I don’t have a problem with people asking about my disability, but I do struggle when a child might ask their parent about my disability and their response is shhhhh…be quiet, that’s not nice. This reaction makes the subject of disability a taboo. It’s interesting, I have two nephews who just know me as Uncle Nicholas. They are really young but they haven’t seemed to notice that I am different from them. So I wonder when they will realize our differences are more significant than my being just Uncle Nicholas. I wonder if it will change our relationship in any way.
Michelle: What else would you like people who read this know about you and other people with disabilities?
Nicholas: First, let me give you my disclaimer. (Perhaps this should have gone at the beginning of this interview) How people treat me is how I want to be included. I cannot speak for every person with a disability, I am just one of many. People have their own ways of viewing what is inclusive and respectful. Now on to my answer to your question. It is important for people to know that a person with a disability is not just taker but is also a giver. I believe all of us have needs. Some needs are physical, some emotional, some are mental, whatever. A relationship is something in which two people give and receive from one another, whatever it might be. In what I consider a friendship there is no I.O.U. involved! It is not a relationship where it is assumed that you do something for me. PERIOD. I do something for you. PERIOD. Friendship, relationship is built on mutual respect and trust and that is what I want in a relationship/friendship. Maybe just in an acquaintance/passerby that is not even a relationship. I just want to be seen as who I am Nicholas Rohde. Jesus sacrificed everything for us. Period. If there is a because, it is because of the wanting for a relationship, which all humans have and this could be the same thing, but a different word because of love.
Michelle: Thank you so much for your time Nicholas. I am looking forward to many more conversations with you.
For further information on how to include people with disabilities into your life check out these websites. http://www.tolerance.org/article/disability-awareness-were-it-together or http://www.uni.edu/equity/disability-etiquette.