When Society Is the Disability
- By Laurie Watanabe
- Mar 01, 2013
In the same week that I read an extraordinary young adult book called Wonder by R.J. Palacio, a
waiter in Houston became famous for defending a young customer with a disability.
Wonder’s protagonist is August Pullman, 10, born with mandibulofacial dysostosis and a
second unnamed condition. Auggie has endured people’s reactions to his appearance his whole
life and is adept, as is his family, at pretending not to notice. He’s always been home-schooled,
but for fifth grade Auggie enters a classroom for the first time. He needs no special accommodations,
and excels both academically and as an empathetic, supportive friend.
Nonetheless, Auggie is bullied by Julian, the most popular boy in fifth grade, and shunned by
other kids following Julian’s lead. Julian’s mother — who Photoshops Auggie out of the annual
class picture because of his face — asks why Auggie was accepted to the school at all, since the
school is not obligated to admit children with special needs.
The wise principal fires back that Auggie isn’t a special needs student: “He is neither disabled,
handicapped nor developmentally delayed in any way, so there was no reason to assume anyone
would take issue with his admittance.” In other words, the principal implies, Julian and his mother,
not Auggie, are the problem here.
The week I read this book, a waiter in Houston refused to serve a customer who made a disparaging
comment about a 5-year-old with Down syndrome. According to multiple media outlets
including NBC’s Today Show, Milo Castillo and his family arrived at Laurenzo’s Prime Rib restaurant
and took their seats. The group sitting next to them moved to a different table, and a man in the
group told waiter Michael Garcia, “Special needs children need to be special somewhere else.”
Garcia refused to serve the man; Garcia’s employers stood by their waiter’s decision. Garcia was
lauded after Milo’s mom, Kim, blogged about the incident.
Both the book and the incident at the restaurant made me think: What is disability? How much
of disability is defined by how it’s perceived by friends and family, by neighbors in the community,
by the media and society at large?
In Auggie’s fictional account and Milo’s real one, the problem wasn’t the kids who looked or
sounded different, but rather how people around them responded to them.
Of course, you work every day with people who have injuries, illnesses or conditions that cause
physical and developmental challenges, delays or limitations. There are plenty of tangible disabilities.
But how much are those disabilities exacerbated by ignorant, fearful or prejudiced attitudes?
And how often have you fought to enable your clients to be seen the way you see them?
In this issue, which coincides with 2013’s International Seating Symposium (ISS), we showcase
technology that seeks to level playing fields. We talk about wheels that roll when walking isn’t
possible, and seating that repositions to protect skin and enhance comfort. We talk about the
challenges of designing bariatric products that must maneuver in the real world, about the need
to stay alert to all the sitting surfaces in a client’s day, and why a little vibration from sidewalks
and curbs can add up to a lot of discomfort.
At the same time, I was reminded that truly leveling the playing field also requires, for many
people, a new perspective.
Toward the end of Wonder, after Auggie has been roughed up by bullies, he asks his mom, "When I grow up, is it always going to be like this?" She has no easy answer, and Auggie, smart kid
that he is, already knows the truth. But she assures him there are good people too, and she's right.
There are people like the waiter who stood up for Milo in Houston. And there is you, continuing
to level the playing field for your clients in every way you can.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Mobility Management.
Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.