By: Shlomit Grayevsky, Director and CEO of ADI Jerusalem
The aversion to people with disabilities that exists among many individuals in society today stems mainly from ignorance.
This week concludes Disability Awareness and Equality Month, a month which enabled us to highlight the difficulties and challenges faced by people with disabilities every day of every year. Progress in finding solutions to their needs is slow.
Yet another complex challenge that stands out beyond the more familiar issues, a less recognized concern that cannot be solved through allotment of government funds or technological solutions, is related to the emotional state of individuals with disabilities: loneliness.
A recently published report by the Commission for Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities shows that as opposed to 5% of the general population, 19% of people with severe disabilities report that there is no one they can turn to in times of distress or crisis. The report also states that looking forward, 18% of people with disabilities envision that their lives will take a turn for the worse in coming years. These very worrisome statistics show that a large percentage of the population of people with disabilities suffers from issues beyond their physical or cognitive disability. The report is not optimistic about the future.
The distress brought to light here has nothing to do with physical assistance. It is not about helping someone carry their bags home from the supermarket or even helping them take a shower. The anguish here is emotional. It is the lack of a listening ear. In many instances, the majority of these people do not have anyone to whom they can pour out their hearts or share the not-so-simple issues that confront them on a daily basis. For the most part, caregivers, charity organizations, volunteers or visiting family members for those who have families, supply the necessary physical assistance. What these individuals need, however, is psychological and interpersonal support, the kind of help that will ease the heart and release the distress hidden within, allowing them to share feelings, find friends and relieve loneliness.
These issues are similar to challenges that confront the elderly, individuals who live alone and hunger for time spent in the company of other people. Someone who will listen their stories, take interest in their daily activity and, simply put, enable them to feel human. Help of this kind carries a greater importance than pure physical assistance. It soothes the sad and lonely soul.
Loneliness is not relegated solely to individuals with a disability. The challenge of loneliness also affects many families bringing up a child or living with a family member with disabilities. Many of these families are not interested in speaking out; they do not want to tell their stories or involve other people. No one can judge such a family, and no one would like to be in their shoes. Still, this self-imposed silence often makes coping more difficult and lies at the root of internal stress that influences all areas of life, including work, relationships with other family members and the daily functioning of the entire family.
On the other hand, some families want to share, to verbalize their difficulties and challenges, and it is proven that those families who are able to share are healthier and stronger. Unfortunately, sometimes they too encounter societal barriers put up by people not willing to listen and not interested in understanding, who try every possible way to avoid coming face-to-face with people with disabilities. There are the parents who distance their children from children with disabilities when playing in the park, who send disapproving glances at the mother of a child with disabilities when she utilizes her right to go to the front of the line in the supermarket, or who are unwilling to accept that there is a place in the world and a meaning and purpose for every person, in every situation. Perhaps such people are afraid of a situation in which they “don’t know what to say,” or are unable to cope with other life events. Such reactions, however, prove that despite the progress we have made as a society in acceptance of those who are different, we still have a long way to go.
The aversion to people with disabilities that exists among many people in our society stems mainly from ignorance, from the inexplicable fear of people who look somewhat different than the standard, and which causes us to forget that though all people are different, all of us are equal. Major-General (Res.) Doron Almog, chair of ADI, is wont to declare that “the strength of humanity is judged by the way we relate to its weakest link.” That sentence, in short, tells the entire story! The strength of society will become so much greater when we improve the way we relate to the different and the vulnerable, when we break down the barrier of fear and wall of ignorance that will enable us to provide a true place for all human beings. That is how we will become an exemplary society.