Person First! Everything else Second, Third and Fourth

Michele S. Ohmes
ADA/disABILITY Specialist
City Architect's Office
City of Kansas City, Missouri

Hello, my name is Michele. I am a mother of four, grandmother of five, employee of the City of Kansas City, Missouri, and an APWA member. By the way, I am also a wheelchair user and now proud owner of an assistance/service dog named Maddie.

I hope you have noticed that I only mentioned my usage of a wheelchair as an add-on remark. Most of the time, I wouldn't even mention it unless I was arranging to attend a function.

I hope you in turn will realize that those of us with disABILITIES are, first and foremost, people. Our disABILITIES do not take away our personhood. Just as being a blonde or brunette, tall or short, slender of build or generously portioned, doesn't take away from the ability to live a full life, neither does having a disABILITY rob a person from a full life.

Often I am asked how it feels to be a wheelchair user and my answer is that it is no different than when I was able to walk, run, dance or play tennis. Those who find out that I taught dancing and playing the piano and guitar ask me if I miss it. Of course I do. What is important, however, is that my love of music cannot be lost and that I now dance and play to the harmony and rhythm of life with all its variations, moods, colors, and instruments. What has been with me all my life is 24/7 pain. Yet, since it is not visible, people aren't aware of its presence. Often I feel that those with the invisible disABILITIES have an advantage since people aren't driven to ask about something they can't see and, therefore, remain ignorant of its existence. Yet, if there is one presence that has helped to direct my life, it is the pain. It has taught me that I can continue, even when the going is difficult. It taught me that my attitude is what will help me overcome barriers and that it is in my hands to move forward or quit.

Now let's talk about having disABILITIES. First, my challenge to each of you is to prove that you are perfect in everything you do and that you can do all things with equal ability. WHAT DO I HEAR? "No way?" Well then, welcome to the world of disABILITIES. The good news is that your very minor disABILITIES have not eliminated your ability to fully participate in this world. For those of us who have diagnosed disABILITIES, keep in mind we are also able to fully participate in this world when exterior barriers or attitudes do not interfere.

Next, let's discuss ATTITUDE, for those of us with disABILITIES and those looking at us. I taught my children that "Our ABILITY depends on our spirit, our determination, and our refusal to eliminate ourselves even when others give up on us." In fact, I didn't allow the usage of the word "can't" when my children were growing up. A person with a disABILITY has the choice to cry about it, complain that life is unfair and give up, or realize that it isn't the disABILITY that will make us fail, but our attitude. For each of you the same holds true. One phrase we hear so often is that people with disABILITIES are challenged or are people with special needs. Of course we are, but so is everyone in one way or another. We really dislike those terminologies, since they carry the connotation that only we are challenged or have special needs. Each person in this world is challenged. Each person in this world has needs that are unique and special, whether it is sickness, money, family, working conditions, school, divorce, loss of someone we love or the many other endless daily challenges we each face.

Another common attitude concerns how heroic we are when we become involved in this wonderful world. Speaking for myself, I haven't one heroic bone, muscle, or inclination in my being. I am a person who loves life and all that goes with it. I don't stay home because there is so much to experience, enjoy, learn, love, and share. Staying at home and feeling sorry for myself would be impossible for me. Therefore, I plan on living, laughing, learning, crying, and reaching for new adventures until I die.

Even worse are the sympathy responses we so often receive. I tell people all the time, "Empathy encourages—Sympathy discourages." Greet us as you would anyone. Remove the sympathy attitude and look at all we have to offer. As I tell the law enforcement officials I train, once you take away the sympathy then you will see the person and proceed with an equal footing. See me for what I can do, and stop worrying about what I can't do. To remove any sympathy you might still be holding onto, imagine we are competing in a two-mile race in 95-degree weather. You are running while I am sitting in my power wheelchair using only my thumb and index finger to control the joystick. There are several steep hills included in the route, no breeze, and no shade or waterways to help cool down during this race. Now tell me where your sympathy lies. Don't you wish you had my advantage, even if only for the race?

Let's also remove the negative words such as "confined," "afflicted" or "suffering" from your vocabulary. I am only confined when my wheelchair-retrofitted vehicle is in the shop or my wheelchair isn't working. Being afflicted, in my book, is always seeing the glass half empty rather than half full. Suffering is not being able to enjoy the small pleasures in life and thinking that only money, expensive possessions and status can bring happiness. My pain is a fact that I live with, but it will never rob me of the priceless possession of enjoying life to the fullest. Does this mean I don't have a generous temper that can flare up in a moment's notice when I see someone willingly feed their ego by destroying others? Absolutely not. I am a full person with all my imperfections making up the whole. I get depressed, cry, shout, have endless moments of insecurity, overextend myself, and often mess up royally. Why? Because I am human. My disABILITY has nothing to do with my personhood.

By the way, avoid asking us how we became disabled, especially if you haven't developed a relationship. Do you want someone to ask you, "Why do you dye your hair?" or "Why do you wear glasses?" or "Isn't there any way you can control your weight?" I don't think so. The exception to this request does extend to children. Allow them to ask questions and always answer with a positive statement. One mother responded to her daughter about why I used a wheelchair by explaining, "Well, Megan, her legs don't work as well as ours so the wheelchair allows her to do all the things we do." I wanted to award her a gold star.

Now for the flip side. When I stated above that "Empathy encourages—Sympathy discourages," I hope you realize how important your empathy is. Empathy allows a person to understand the needs of others. Use this gift to make your facilities, public rights-of-way, and programs accessible for everyone. This includes children, parents, and people of all sizes, shapes and abilities, backgrounds, faiths, and those of us with disABILITIES. Be inclusive, become creative in your thinking, reach out and ask what others need. First and foremost, don't believe that your needs, wants and requirements are the same for everyone. One size does not fit all.

Now sit back and relax and the next time you see me, my wheelchair and my service dog, Maddie, remember we are having the time of our lives. My wish for you is that you are doing the same.

Michele Ohmes received APWA's Diversity Exemplary Practices Award in 2001. She can be reached at (816) 513-2533 or by sending e-mail to This article first appeared in the July 2002 "APWA PUB NEWS," the Kansas City Metro Chapter's online newsletter. Reprinted with permission.

Common sense is the theme of ADA & Accessibility: Let's Get Practical, published in 2000 by the American Public Works Association. The book's author, Michele Ohmes, an ADA specialist with the City of Kansas City, Missouri, explains how to make sense of the law's rules and regulations, and includes specific, alternative solutions to common problems that can occur when the guidelines are not completely understood.

Ohmes, herself a wheelchair user, has suggestions for those who plan public projects or who review development proposals:

  • Keep streetlights and other obstructions off walkways.
  • Clear debris off curb ramps.
  • Avoid use of radius ramps, and encourage side-to-side ramps (they are safer for the visually impaired).
  • Always design a planting strip for utilities, and keep sidewalks away from the curb edge.
  • Consider structured parking as opposed to surface parking lots (to slow down drivers).
Ohmes believes it is possible to plan with people of all abilities in mind. "When a built environment is walkable and accessible, it benefits people with strollers, children, families, everyone," she says.

ADA & Accessibility: Let's Get Practical is $60 for members and $80 for nonmembers, and can be purchased by going online at or by calling (816) 472-6100, ext. 3560.