Disability Awareness Day promotes empathy
For most, ordering a hamburger from McDonald’s with extra onions and pickles is a simple act.
But Deena Artmstrong, Staci Nichols and Deb Dunaway were attracting curious looks Friday as they fumble with their money and attempted to communicate despite being unable to see or hear.
“It can be hard, but it’s good,” Nichols said. “People take things for granted.”
For Friday’s Northwest Colorado Disability Awareness Day, community members were encouraged to “adopt” a disability for an hour or more to gain insight into what it’s like to be disabled.
Nichols, who is deaf, acted as a mentor and assistant to Armstrong, who blindfolded herself and put in earplugs to spend an hour as a blind and deaf person.
Dunaway, who works at the Independent Life Center for disabled people, has donned dark sunglasses to see the world through the eyes of someone with low vision.
“I often put on the glasses just at home or turn the lights down because I work with people with low vision a lot,” Dunaway said. “It’s to get empathy, to get a connection with other groups of people.”
Communication among the trio was a trying task.
Armstrong held Nichols’ hands in hers as Nichols communicated through sign language. Armstrong, though a sign language interpreter, said it was harder to receive the message using just the feeling in her hands.
Dunaway, however, knew only limited sign language, so Nichols had to read her lips, and then translate the message into Armstrong’s hands. Armstrong still could respond, although she could not hear her own voice.
“It’s exhausting to sign for the deaf and blind,” Nichols said, as she repeated message after message into Armstrong’s eager hands.
Dunaway compared the experience to communicating across cultures.
“It’s like speaking to someone who speaks another language,” she said. “It’s like that with other disabilities. People don’t know what it’s like to be in a wheelchair, what it’s like to not be able to get up and walk somewhere when they want to. People need to step back and understand why.”
After they got their food, Nichols led Armstrong to the drink dispenser, where Armstrong had to keep her finger inside the cup to feel when it was full.
Curious stares followed Armstrong as Nichols led her back to their booth.
“It’s important for people with disabilities to get out in public,” Dunaway said. “But it’s hard, because other people aren’t used to it. Sometimes that’s why they tend to stay inside and stay isolated.”
When Armstrong finally managed to unwrap her hamburger, she looked down at it and began to laugh.
“This is going to be a challenge,” she said. “If I get any ketchup on my face, will you wipe it up?”
For a naturally curious and social person such as Armstrong, it was difficult to stay out of the loop. When a friend came by the table – all wearing their “handicapable” Disability Awareness Day T-shirts – Armstrong would reach out for Nichols’ hands and ask who it was.
Looking back after she had removed her blindfold and earplugs, Armstrong said it was a frustrating but good experience.
“You’re so isolated,” she said. “When I was blind, I never knew there were this many people here, and I was constantly trying to find out what people around me were saying. You’re just clueless about your surroundings. People take basic communication for granted.”
Nichols said she once tried to blindfold herself four years ago.
“It didn’t go well at all,” she said, with the help of Armstrong as her interpreter. “I just got so nervous.”
Nichols teaches a free sign language class and puts on deaf socials monthly at Calvary Baptist Church, in order to encourage a discourse between the hearing and the deaf.
And that was the idea behind Disability Awareness Day: to encourage people to ask questions and try to see the world through someone else’s eyes, Dunaway said.
“This is a good opportunity for us to try it in public and demonstrate that everyone has a different perception,” Dunaway said. “The way you see the world may not be the way someone else sees it, and that’s the main thing we want to get across.”
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