Disability and Respect: Look Her in the Eye

I’m so grateful for the technician at the eye doctor appointment who assumes that Penny can speak for herself. I’m also aware of how surprised I feel that this young woman is acting as if I am not in the room. 

Many people treat Penny as if she is both younger and less capable than she is. They look to me to answer questions. They talk to her as if she is a child. They assume incompetence. 

None of this behavior is ever mean-spirited. If anything, it is out of a desire to accommodate Penny and make sure she is well cared for. And yet it implicitly belittles her when people don’t start by looking her in the eye and giving her the chance to respond for herself. (And let’s be clear, while there are kids and adults with disabilities who aren’t able to respond with words, all of us deserve the respect that comes from this kind of attention and the assumption that we are capable of making a human connection.)

Disability and Respect

The sad thing is that I’ve gotten used to it. So when this technician asks Penny if she wants the eye-numbing drops before she puts in drops that sting, I’m surprised. And I’m surprised when she says, “You’re seventeen now. You’re allowed to choose for yourself.” And when Penny asks to hold my hand just in case the drops sting anyway, I’m surprised again when she continues her conversation with Penny by saying, “I sometimes still ask my mom to come with me to the doctor too.” 

I wish I didn’t feel surprised that she is treating Penny like the young adult she is. I wish I didn’t live in a world where it makes sense to write an Instagram post about how someone saw my child with Down syndrome and treated her with respect. But that’s what happened, and I am grateful for this woman and for all the people out there who are able to see beyond labels, speak beyond cultural assumptions, and do the small but significant work of honoring our common humanity. 

Shared with Penny’s permission

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