From where I sit

My name is Matthew Stafford. I’m a college graduate, with a bachelor’s degree from Cleveland State University. However, this is not an assumption most people would make about me. See, I have cerebral palsy. I have trouble walking, so I use a wheelchair. People make a lot of assumptions about me and people like me. I’m going to try and dispel these assumptions.

For whatever strange reason, people automatically assume that being physically disabled equates to being mentally disabled. In fact many people with physical problems are just fine mentally, contrary to assumptions. It’s not just kids who make these assumptions either. There are the waiters who instinctively ask the guy next to me what I want to eat. There are the flight attendants who treat me just slightly above luggage and the hassles of checking in on a flight. People with disabilities hated flying before the Transportation Safety Administration made it cool.

And let’s face it: No one at the TSA sincerely believes that people with disabilities are strapping bombs to their wheelchairs.

Then there is always the guy screaming in our faces at the 7-11. This is weird, because screaming at a mentally disabled person won’t make them understand anything any better and it just ticks the physically disabled ones off.

There’s the assumption that we with disabilities like being told we’re “inspiring” for doing random mundane things like getting the mail. In actuality, there are very few better ways to tick off a person with any disability — it’s hard to put it into words why without taking up an issue’s worth of space. I guess the best analogy is the “credit to your race” thing many African Americans in the professional world deal with. It allows others to feel like they’re open minded without actually having to do something to make life better for the “inspiring” group.

I think we can all agree that it comes from a nice place but it comes off as extremely annoying, especially if we have never met the people randomly accosting us.

Speaking of people randomly accosting me, people with kids can be the worst. For some reason, people just assume people with disabilities are willing to divulge their medical histories to literally anyone who asks, especially gawking kids with inattentive parents. Believe it or not, we have things to do or places to be. Other times, we might not want to lecture a kid and his entire third-grade class as we cross paths, even if their parents think it’s the cutest thing in the world. It’s nothing personal but we have stuff to do.

As an aside, blind friends of mine tell me they have had people randomly run up to their service dogs and pet them. This is another bad move. These are not normal dogs. These dogs are working and if they get distracted, something bad could happen. Please leave the service dogs alone.

When the adults get in the act, it manages to inexplicably get more stupid. One day wile I was in college I was eating lunch at the dining hall. This person I’ve never met before in my life, walked up to me and asked how I used the bathroom. On the same day, another guy came to me in the hallway and asked, out of the blue, how I had sex. Process that for a minute. If a guy you never met just walked up to you and quizzed you about your sex life, you’d get the mace, fire it off and move quickly in the opposite direction.

But woe betide any disabled person who requests that people not scream at them, who asks for better treatment at the airport, for parents to put their cell phones down and set some boundaries for their children.

It’s like our opinions on being screamed at in the store, being randomly accosted by people we don’t know and quizzed about our most intimate medical details don’t matter.

It is not bitterness to ask for some basic respect. I understand that maybe people get the wrong idea from the media or old stereotypes. However, it’s the 21 st century. Let’s do better than screaming at people at the checkout line. Please?

Matt Stafford lives in Greensboro