Matthew Shapiro meets with clients (Photo courtesy 6 Wheels Consulting)
When Matthew Shapiro’s at the grocery store, he often sees little kids approach him, their eyes alight with curiosity. Before they can open their mouths to speak to him, however, parents scoop up their children and whisk them away. Then there’s the way parents look at him, and at his mother, Shapiro says. “They will exhale after they walk by me,” he says — a soft sound of pity, or relief.
Don’t yank away your children, he wants to say. Let them ask. Don’t pity him. He’s happy.
“My life is great,” he says. “I’m almost 26. I own my own business. … My life has challenges, but it’s really not that bad.”
Shapiro, who has cerebral palsy, works as a consultant and public speaker with his company, 6 Wheels Consulting. His mission is encouraging Richmonders to see disability in a different way; not to look away, but to accept and understand.
He’s one of the speakers at the upcoming Community Conversation on acceptance presented by The Valentine (Richmond magazine is a partner in this series). Free and open to the public, this latest installment of a dialogue on Richmond’s values takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 3 at The Valentine, 1015 E. Clay St.
“Acceptance” is a tough word to pin down. To me, it calls to mind the Serenity Prayer — “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” — and the fifth stage of grief, that exhausted acquiescence that comes when you’re all cried out. “Acceptance” connotes resignation, surrender, a shrug.
But it can mean so much more, as I’ve been learning. Acceptance is a way of seeing without judging. Acceptance is questioning your own assumptions.
Instead of looking at people with disabilities as other, try to understand their experiences. “At some point in our lives, we’re all going to end up disabled,” Shapiro points out — whether from age, or injury, or illness. And yet Richmonders living with disabilities are so often overlooked.
In Shapiro’s work, he preaches “inclusion above compliance.” What does that mean? “So often, we as a society think, ‘If I’m ADA-compliant, I’m good to go and I’ve done all I have to do with regard to the disability population.’ ”
Let’s say you own a local business, and you’ve ensured your space is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act: The bathroom is accessible, for instance, and there’s a wheelchair ramp at the entrance. Don’t stop there, Shapiro urges. Seek out ways to be welcoming. And don’t be afraid to ask him for help. “I’m not doing any of this work to have a gotcha moment,” he says.
He seeks common-sense solutions instead, some of which can be almost embarrassingly simple. Is there a plant or a trashcan in front of the elevator buttons in your building? Move it. Move furniture to make passage easier for people using a walker or a wheelchair. Post signs that say, “If you need assistance, just ask.”
And don’t pull away your child when she wants to ask a question. “Let’s be open to having that conversation,” Shapiro says.
Here’s another acceptance challenge: When we look at a homeless person in Richmond, we may assume that addiction, or a mental health crisis, drove that person to the streets. Same old story, right? The truth is that more than a third of local people who are homeless have nowhere to live because they’re unemployed or have a criminal record. That’s it. They have at least a GED, they don’t report any mental health issues and aren’t addicted. They just don’t have the income for housing.
“I think it still stuns people a little bit,” confides Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, which collects detailed data on the region’s homeless population. (Horne is also a panelist at the upcoming Community Conversation.) It’s important to understand that there’s no single story about homelessness, Horne says — and to accept that assumptions might be wrong.
The local community of homeless-service providers has recently had to learn that lesson, too. For a long time, nonprofits urged local do-gooders to leave the work of ending homelessness to the professionals. Then, when Monroe Park closed in November, Horne witnessed “this incredible uncovering of this informal system of informal service providers.” The help offered in the park — like meals and outreach — had been essential to the city’s homeless community. Now, Horne says, “We have this opportunity to accept that we need the professionals and we need the amateur compassion.”
Some people who are homeless do need formal intervention. Some need a sandwich. At one Homeward-sponsored meeting, a man said, “Look. I just want a key.” And “no matter what,” Horne says, “everyone needs a friend.”
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