The University of Utah sponsored a disability awareness day last week and held a number of events designed to make students more cognizant of the needs of the disabled - and also more at ease with them.

I attended a panel discussion that featured four students: Sharon LaSalle has a profound hearing loss, Dave Stewart is a member of the Association for Retarded Citizens and has a retarded daughter, Brian K. Smith is totally blind and Loraine Ruckman has been in a wheelchair since a car accident two years ago. The facilitator, student John Wunderli, also passed along some insights from a tape made by a friend of his. Lori has cerebral palsy.Each one shared his or her perspective on dealing with disabilities, a mixture of their preferences and expertise.

They all agreed on one thing. While they realize that their lives are somewhat different because of physical limitations, they do not want to be handicapped by others' expectations and fears.

"We are people first and have disabilities second," Stewart said. "Treat us as you would anyone and never lose sight of the fact that those with disabilities are people first, last and always."

"I am not my disability," Lori said, "although it is obviously part of me. I am a woman who happens to be disabled. But I am a woman first."

Although each one has totally different physical limitations, certain common problems and occurrences affect each of them.

For instance, people tend to address questions "around" them, rather than directly to them. A lot of people have a tendency to talk louder to those who are disabled. The exception in this group is Sharon, who is hearing impaired. But her disability is invisible, unlike Loraine's wheelchair or Brian's cane.

Lori pointed out that there is an inconsistency in how the public looks at those who are disabled: "Either we can't do anything or we have superpowers that compensate for our disabilities. Frankly, I'm somewhere in between."

Wunderli read a list of suggestions for interacting with people in wheelchairs. Always ask if they want assistance (never just start doing something for someone). Don't bang on the wheelchair. Speak directly to the person, not to someone else nearby. If a conversation looks like it will last awhile, consider sitting or kneeling so you don't tower over the wheelchair. Finally, give clear directions including weather, obstacles, etc., that might hinder the chair user's travel.

Loraine took exception to the last two tips. Sit, by all means, she said, if you would do so with anyone. "But that `Woops, I'm talking above you, so I'd better kneel' suggestion seems a little catty," she said. "And the weather report seems a little strange."

She doesn't sit in her wheelchair all the time, and said she's noticed that people treat her differently if they meet her in the wheelchair than if they meet her out of it, "although I'm obviously the same person."

Brian suggested that people be a little more verbal (that doesn't mean louder) in dealing with a blind person. "There've been times I've looked for a door, knowing it should be there and couldn't find it. Then I realize someone's holding it open for me. It would be easier on both of us if they'd say `Here, let me hold the door.' "

Dave said that those with mental retardation have their rights violated every day.

He cited "behavior control methods" like having them sniff glue as examples of things that wouldn't be done to someone who could act as a self-advocate. "Most of those who are mentally retarded do want to speak for themselves and we try to show them how."

He also lamented the fact that those who have retardation cannot access college campuses, even though they may be very bright in some ways and a college would be more age-appropriate for some of the older students (education is mandated until age 22). "Services to handicapped adults are not mandated. You get on waiting lists and they can be 30 years long."

Loraine chuckled when an audience member asked if those who know sign language should use it when they encounter someone who is hearing-impaired.

"I don't know sign," she said. "I lost my hearing in my early 20s and my language was long established. But I wouldn't be offended."

She seemed to speak for the group when she said, "I know when I need help and I don't hesitate to ask for it. And it never bothers me if people offer to help. But I am appalled when people just `help' and don't offer first."