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A Perspective on Interacting with People with Disabilities: Part Two of the Disability Etiquette Series

Patricia with the executive director of STEP at Disability Day on the Hill

An Interview with Patricia Valladares, Director for Middle Tennessee Services & Multicultural Liaison at STEP TN


Tell me about yourself. 

I have Retinitis Pigmentosa, an inherited disease. My brother and I have it and we both got it from my dad. When my parents married, doctors told them it was not an inherited disease. When I was six and my brother was five, my mother noticed we were bumping into things. She took us to the doctor and we were diagnosed with the disease. Still, we were able to grow up attending regular school and do everything other children did with no limitations. The only limitations or obstacles we did find were in sports. I love volleyball and was good at serving in volleyball, but I could not see the ball. My brother liked soccer and he had the same issues as well.

I married and had my children. Everything was going up in my life. It eventually got to a point in my life though, that I was getting frustrated. There was a moment that from one week to the next, so suddenly, I was not able to do certain things. I worked with a cargo company and was in charge of sea exports. Every Friday I was in charge of the bills of boats sent to the ports; and it was from one weekend to the next that I couldn’t do that anymore.

I spoke to my dad about my frustration and he started crying and said, “Why did I have to give this to you and your brother?” I told him “I don’t know but time will find out.” My father was my strength and my rock. My brother was a psychologist and very spiritual in his work with families with special needs, both adults and children. That is where he does his best work, helping with families who have children with disabilities. I never felt discouraged that I was going to be a failure. Frustrated? Yes. For a moment in my life, it was hard thing to ask people to help me. I do most everything that I can on my own and try to be very independent. I have been very independent all of my life.

If there is a reason why I lost my sight, I think it is because of the work that I do. I have passion for what I do. It is not just a job. For me, working for STEP (Support and Training for Exceptional Parents) is not just a job, it really is a passion. I try to advocate not only for families, but also for anything related to people with disabilities and any type of disabilities, as well as the special abilities that we have. People with disabilities have abilities. If you don’t show people, they don’t see it because they are afraid from lack of knowledge or maybe ignorance. If someone has a disability, they may not be able to find a job very easily because people are afraid of what they don’t know. We have to show them what we can do.


What has your experience been in the workplace as a person with a disability?

My experience as a person with a disability in the workplace has shown people what a person with a disability can do. Sometimes, you are a monkey that people want to look at for what you can do. I would rather see it as people thinking if she can do it, then my child can too. I enjoy helping build high expectations for kids or for anybody else.


As you know, we're focusing on disability etiquette for this article series. After looking at the brochure we sent, is there an area that you feel strongly about or identify with?

One of the things I feel strongly about is that you have to treat somebody with a disability just as you would anyone else. For example, saying, “I’ll see you later” is normal thing to say to someone who is blind. Or if I come to tell you, “I was watching TV” people may be thinking “How is she watching TV?” It is just a normal conversation. You don’t need treat people with a disability differently, just ask if they might need assistance with something. The person with a disability might also ask you for help if they need it. It’s just about having an open mind.

In the workforce, I also don’t like it when people say “You’re just amazing! Look what you’re doing! How can you do that?” Sometimes it feels like people think I am something weird to look at or all of the things that I can do. I am just like you - I have accommodations and technology that have opened a whole world of opportunities for myself and other people with disabilities. If you take technology away from me, you’re making me blind again.

We are individuals like you or like anybody else. We just might do things in a different way because we need something to assist us like anybody else might. I am not afraid of changes and am willing to try whatever is needed so I can do better. We all have to encourage one another.

 If you are an employer and somebody without a disability comes to apply for the job and someone with a disability also applies, you may think there is a risk to employing this person with a disability. People who think this way aren’t giving the time to ask what time of accommodations this person might need to be successful and may just close the door and give the job to the other person. People have to ask and not assume. Ask questions like “How can I help you? What accommodations do you need?” Not all assistive technologies are expensive. Employers need to find there are resources that can make this possible. One of the most important things is really just learning about different disabilities and what accommodations, technologies, or other things are out there that can help.


What would you want people who don't have your same experience with disability in the workplace to know?

We are just people like anybody else. We are not different. We are people like anybody else, with the same dreams. We want our lives to be the best they can be.


Is there anything else you want to say regarding disability etiquette in the workplace?

If anything, just for employers to give the same opportunities to people with disabilities as people without disabilities. Ask what type of accommodations someone will need. It is not always obvious what accommodations will work best for people.