Ask and Ye Might Receive: Getting What You Need with a Disability Starts With How You Ask

I have a significant physical disability. I use a large wheelchair, one of my hands lacks almost any practical function and the other hovers around 70%. Not only do I require hired help for all of my activities of daily living in the morning and in the evening, I require enumerable little things all throughout the day. Despite this, I live very independently, not only navigating personal and professional worlds in Cincinnati, New York, and Boston independently, but also regularly traveling independently to Washington DC, with periodic travel to plenty of other someone random locations. Occasionally, people, especially other people with disabilities, will ask how I arrange the extensive concessions that this lifestyle requires me to ask of others, especially the service professionals that I encounter every day. I honestly think that the answer is in a carefully crafted attitude.

In my experience, nobody with a disability actually believes, “ask and ye shall receive”. We generally assume that the world is going to be difficult. We generally assume that we’re going to have to fight. There is truth to this, and nobody succeeds with a disability without a certain willingness to fight. But, as I say in the headline, I have found that the trick is “ask and ye might receive.”

I did not live to the 1970s, and I was very young in the 80s. I have no recollection of a world in which people with disabilities were truly outside of the consciousness of the rest of the population.

Certainly, I face discrimination every day, big and small. Whether it’s a difficulty in finding an accessible entrance, a store or restaurant with a grandfathered exception that is still closed to me, or that party where the host decided the venue must absolutely be a third floor walk-up, there are things from which I am excluded.

Also, there are people who don’t wish to serve me. The sales clerks in New York who visibly wish that I would go to a different store, the barber in Cambridge who simply announces that my barber is out today and so I should come back, saying without saying that he will not cut my hair, and the x-ray tech in Philadelphia who still can’t quite understand why I have no one with to remove my clothes and put me on the x-ray table.

That said, there are also the 3 different barbershops where the barber begins moving the chair to make room for me as I come through the door before I ever have a chance to ask, and the one on the Upper West Side where the barber runs to the store adjacent to his shop to borrow the ramp so that I can get inside. There are sales clerks and managers in every city who will walk with me through T.J. Maxx in order to help me access things on the shelves, even searching through the shirt bin with me for my obscure shirt size. And, there is the most recent x-ray tech I encountered, in Boston, who not only helped me on the table, but made sure that my clothes were 100% presentable when it was time for me to leave.

I do not pick these examples to indicate that the world has become easy. Neither do I pick them to lionize the individuals that helped me out, though I am grateful for what they did. Rather, I pick them to show that attitudes are changing, and that people with disabilities and our service needs are permeating the general consciousness.

One cannot always depend on getting a helpful the service person, whether one has a disability or not. That said, if you do not have a disability and you are in a restaurant, you expect accommodation from the server when you ask that your burger be cooked medium-well, or that they hold the onions, or put pickles on the side. Similarly, I do not assume that it is a special request when I ask that my food be cut up in the kitchen before being brought the table.

As a person without a disability, upon checking into a hotel, it is not unusual task for extra towels or a wake-up call, or even a rollaway bed. When traveling on business, it’s not even uncommon to ask the concierge to hold the delivery for your arrival. I do the same when it comes to the large number of extra washcloths my hygiene routine in hotels calls for, the fact that my bed will need to be on blocks or legs rather than a platform and, the fact that I will be pre-shipping a lift for delivery. When I make my reservation, I offer these requests with the assumption that they are perfectly normal. I hope that I am as courteous as we should all be to people in service professions, but I don’t imply that they are doing any favors.

This, then, is my answer to the question of how. Yes, some of it is that I have been blessed to encounter truly wonderful individuals. Moreover, through personal choice more than natural demeanor, I am very friendly. I recognize that service professions are difficult and unpleasant, that hotel and restaurant staff or mistreated and abused by superiors and patrons alike all day every day, and so I am nice. I am grateful. I take an interest in their lives, take a moment to smile, and to say a kind word, as I believe that everyone should do, with or without a disability. And, where appropriate to the type of service, I tip, because the failure to pay a living wage in this country is as widespread as it is indefensible.

I do not, however, presume that they are doing me a kindness by meeting my needs. They are doing their job, and I ask with the expectation that they will do that job. Generally they deliver. I neither demand with the implied threat of a lawsuit for discrimination, nor do I wheedle as though they are doing me some great favor beyond the call of duty.

The first, I have found, leads only to a defensive, if not outright combative response. The second, perhaps even worse, often predisposes the listener to feeling that they have encountered in imposition. After all, you prefaced it as such. Once they feel imposed upon, they are looking to find reasons to decline, and you gave them the opening to make that decision by implying that you were asking for a favor above and beyond.

This, then, is my learned and lived experience, which I hope might be useful. If you are person with a disability going through the world, and you have a need, ask for it politely but firmly. Assume that it will be granted. If it is declined, neither beg nor threaten, but, do as the most successful negotiators without disabilities do and asked to speak with the supervisor. But, mostly, ask with the assumption that there will not be a problem. I can’t guarantee success, but it will be better if one adopts the attitude, “Ask and ye might receive.”

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