In the hit movie “Field of Dreams,” a voice continuously whispers to the protagonist Kevin Costner, “If you build it, he will come.”
I’d like to challenge Harrisburg business owners and residents to consider this quote as it relates to people with disabilities.
When I was just 15 years old, a high school football accident suddenly caused me to need to use a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Certainly unexpected for me, the truth is, having a disability is surprisingly common. Dauphin County is home to more than 32,000 people living with disabilities, and in the United States, approximately one in five people have a disability.
With an aging population and veterans returning from war, this number will rise. Businesses and city residents need to know how to communicate and ensure inclusion of people with disabilities.
We can ignite this inclusion by changing how we speak. Categorizing people causes segregation, and the fear of using the wrong terminology is equally debilitating. Using “people first” language is an easy solution. It simply means naming the person first and the disability second. For example, you should say “people with disabilities” instead of “the disabled” or say “a person who uses a wheelchair” instead of “a wheelchair-bound person.”
We also need to encourage city residents to ask questions and be inquisitive, as it drives understanding. Living in a diverse community, we all encounter others who are different from us. Ask questions, learn and clarify with the individual if you are unsure of the appropriate assistance to offer or how to handle a situation.
For example, when my wife and I go out to dinner, the waitress or waiter often directs questions about me to my wife instead of asking me. They assume that I am incapable of speaking for myself and that she must be my caregiver. The truth is, we’re just a typical husband and wife out to dinner. It’s okay to speak to me directly.
Or, let’s say you see a person who is using a manual wheelchair who appears to be having trouble pushing up onto a sidewalk. Instead of assuming that the person needs to be pushed, simply ask if you can offer assistance first.
Putting the myths and stereotypes to rest will help end discrimination.
Additionally, as Harrisburg continues its financial recovery efforts, companies need to communicate that they are open for business for people with disabilities. Contrary to the popular misperception, people with disabilities do have disposable incomes and they do want to visit restaurants, shops and entertainment venues – but city spaces aren’t always accessible to us.
Entrance doors are often too narrow or too heavy to open, and store aisles are often too congested with displays that keep people who use wheelchairs from moving freely. Abled bodied people don’t see that even a small step can prevent someone from participating. While it might be easily negotiated by them, it might as well be a mountain for us.
Many of these accessible modifications require minimal expenses too. For example, by simply adding a ramp or widening a doorway, people who use wheelchairs can access services like any other paying customers. We don’t want to have to wait at the curb for our dinner to be delivered, but instead, invite people with disabilities to come inside and frequently patronize your business by making small adjustments. The Hilton Harrisburg hotel exemplifies this inclusive behavior, having worked closely with the disability community to create an accessible venue.
For businesses not sure where to start, the Center for Independent Living of Central PA offers knowledgeable experts who can guide you from design creation to construction completion. We are hopeful that even more city businesses and leaders will strengthen relationships and communication with the disability community in the years to come.
If you build it, we will come.
Theo Braddy is Executive Director of the Center for Independent Living of Central PA