People with disabilities take issue with comments by the public

Story and photo by PAUL S. GRECO

“I’m crazy, but I’m not stupid,” he said, and happily busted out laughing, contagiously. When he spoke, his body wrenched with enthusiasm, causing his wheelchair to move slightly with him.

Jonathan Westling is 46 and has cerebral palsy. At birth, the umbilical cord got wrapped around his neck and damaged the cerebral cortex in his brain.

Jonathan Westling

Jonathan Westling enjoys boating and jet skiing and has been skydiving.

Westling was born in New Jersey. After doing some research, his father felt that Primary Children’s Medical Center could provide the best care. So Westling, at age 5, moved to Utah with his parents, four sisters and three brothers. He is the youngest.

“Looks can be deceiving. There’s more to me than just meets the eye,” Westling said. He feels that the general public doesn’t understand people like him because most people don’t know anyone with his kind of disability.

One time while grocery shopping, he related how the check-out clerk made a big deal of him being able to read her name tag. As Westlling and his friend were leaving the store they could hear her telling others, “He read my name.”

He’s intelligent, and he likes to do things as much as anyone else. However, his disability makes it more difficult.

“I like to do just about anything outdoors. I love to go boating and jet skiing. I really love to sit around an open camp fire,” he said. He’s also been skydiving.

People with disabilities are sometimes misunderstood by the public. Shelly Hendriksen is legally blind with 20/200 vision in each eye. What a person with 20/20 vision can see at 200 feet, Hendriksen can see at 20 feet.

Hendriksen was born in Anaheim, Calif., and graduated high school in Oregon. She, her husband and children live in Salt Lake City.

Like Westling, she also has experienced rude questions.

At one meeting she attended, she was seated with her guide-cane folded under her chair. A man approached her and asked if she was blind. “Yeah,” she said.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked.

“Like, I have no idea,” she said. “Really, you can’t tell?” he asked.

“No, I really can’t tell how many fingers you’re holding up.”

What frustrates Hendriksen most is when people try to make her feel stupid because she’s visually impaired. “I like to be treated with respect. I have a bachelor’s degree. I’m not dumb. I worked hard to get that degree,” she said.

In fact, she has two degrees: an associate’s degree from Portland Community College and a bachelor’s degree in education from Utah State University.

Jeremy Chatelain said some people treat him poorly because they don’t know better. Other people just don’t care to know better.

Chatelain was born in Utah. He lives in North Ogden and is a seminary instructor for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

One frozen winter morning, Chatelain, who is quadriplegic, waited in the dark for the bus. But the driver passed him by. Fortunately, his wife was with him and quickly drove him to the next stop.

A man was waiting there and asked Chatelain, “What happened to you?”

“I broke my neck diving into a shallow river,” Chatelain said.

“Well that was stupid, wasn’t it?” the man said.

Over the years, changes have been made in the terminology used regarding people with disabilities. For example, injuries are “sustained” or “received,” not “suffered.” Also, people-first language emphasizes that an individual uses a  wheelchair, she or he is not “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.”

Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities provides information on disability awareness:

  • “Always speak to the disabled individual directly and not through someone else.”
  • “When someone has a speech impairment, take your time and listen. Don’t try to always finish their sentence.”
  • “Offer to shake their hand, even if it appears as if they have limited use of their arms or have an artificial limb. Simply the gesture will help them feel accepted and create a warmer environment for communication.”
  • “For those who cannot shake hands, lightly touch the individual on the shoulder or arm to welcome their presence.”

“I don’t mean to sound redundant,” Westling said, “but the golden rule says ‘Treat others how you would want to be treated.’ I cannot stress enough how important I feel that is.”