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Changing attitudes: we all need to learn.

In a presidential debate, H. Ross Perot said that the national debt was like "a crazy aunt we keep down in the basement. All the neighbors know she's there, but nobody wants to talk about her." Justin Dart, Executive Director of the President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities, wrote to Mr. Perot and pointed out that his statement reflected "a negative, stereotypical perception that is the basis of millions of civil rights violations, thousands of suicides, widespread homelessness and massive unemployment."

We know that Mr. Perot had not intended to hurt anyone. All of us can make comments about people with disabilities that reflect attitudes learned while we were growing up. Even though our behavior toward and relationships with individuals with disabilities have changed, we can be surprised how old stereotypes persist within us. We may be further surprised at how often we may unwittingly find ourselves still behaving as if our old images and ideas are relevant in contemporary society.

Sometimes, we wonder just how much attitudes have changed and whether the new opportunities required by legislation will disappear. It can be discouraging when thousands of children with disabilities are still educated in separate classes without opportunities to interact with peers, when public debate continues about the value of financial support to educate children with disabilities, or when business costs are blamed on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Fortunately, our experiences do indicate that attitudes are changing and many people are trying to ensure that people of all ages with disabilities can truly participate in community life. There are specific, noticeable changes in the accessibility of buses and parks, churches and synagogues, theaters and restaurants, shopping malls and small neighborhood shops. And children and adults with disabilities are responding to these community invitations by traveling, worshipping, dining and shopping alongside their fellow citizens.

Attitude changes are also evident in the media. When Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Sesame Street began to include children with disabilities over 20 years ago, few could have predicted the acceptability of disability-related themes in the media by adults. And when Life Goes On first appeared on ABC-TV, many media experts questioned whether a weekly program about a family that included a youngster with Down syndrome (actually played by an actor with Down syndrome) would have any lasting appeal to viewers or sponsors. Now that Life Goes On has entered the rerun stage, it is clear that "Corky" and his family have touched millions of people and become part of everyday life.

There are still negative attitudes expressed toward individuals with disabilities, however. They and their families wonder how to respond to such "terrible, angry people." We start with a different view. We believe most adults feel uncomfortable with change. People can feel uncomfortable or even irritated when an individual with a disability wheels next to them at a place of worship or boards a "kneeling" bus, forcing everyone to wait. We believe that when people express negative attitudes, it does not mean they are unwilling to try to welcome people with disabilities into their lives. We believe that most people want to care and want to be helpful. They can change as they observe the changes around them. We too acknowledge that sometimes we are uncomfortable or uncertain about our own interactions with people who appear to be different from ourselves -- including people with disabilities. But we remain encouraged because so much has changed, including our own perspectives and behaviors.

Straightforward education is the key to change. Statements like Mr. Perot's provide us with new opportunities to teach. We can respond as Mr. Dart did by reaching out and thoughtfully explaining a different perspective. When we do, a majority of the time we will discover that most of us have been and continue to be willing to change old patterns and learn new ways of behaving.

Soon, the younger generation will be taking on community decision-making responsibilities. They will have had everyday interactions with peers with disabilities as well as classroom discussions about opportunities for children and adults with disabilities. These kinds of experiences are shaping their attitudes just as our experiences growing up during times when people with disabilities were kept out of sight influenced so many of us. We can expect the younger generation to welcome individuals with disabilities as peers. Together they will make more informed decisions about all people.
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Author:Klein, Stanley D.; Schleifer, Maxwell J.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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