I’m not writing this in response to any personal affronts, there’s no enemy or villain to identify here. We are all of us capable of better communication, and most people struggle in general. Our culture treats disabled people as an “other”, like an outside group of alien, foreign, or strange persons who can’t be anything like the rest of us. We automatically think this, but when you examine the idea it doesn’t hold true, don’t you think? I mean, is it really true that those with disabilities are different from “regular” people? Or are they “regular” people now, and we need to learn to overcome our biases and learn to include these persons?
First, I cannot categorically speak for everyone who has a disability, because everyone is different, just like all people we can’t be thrown in a group of identical-thinking people. My disability is mostly invisible except when I use mobility devices, and I am an occasional cane user, walker user, and wheelchair user. Some days I look unassisted and not unlike an able person. My condition sucks but due to its variability it has enabled me to observe the differences in the way people interact with someone who appears able and who appears disabled.
Note: If you are a caregiver, this guide is not enough because you’re going to have a huge role in this person’s life (in fact, some of this advice will not apply to you at all, or will be counterproductive for your role). In no way is this a training guide for Personal Care Assistants, Caregivers, Visiting Nurses, etc.
I’m not a jerk but I can’t relate to disabled people at all. How do I include people with disabilities?
It’s really common to struggle with this. You’re likely not an evil jackwad, but you can do more and you just need to have some tactics. In fact, these tactics when employed can even make you a better communicator with all people and not just those who have disabilities. Challenge yourself not to be negative and say things like “I can’t relate to them” when what you’re really saying is “I don’t know what having a disability feels like.” Did you know that to some people, their disability isn’t the most important thing about them? Learn what is, and maybe you will find you have that in common and are totally alike.
I don’t see why it’s important to “include” people with disabilities. They must have their own friends, just like I have mine.
While it is likely disabled people have friends, that’s not the point. Your goal doesn’t have to be “make every person you interact with your friend” does it? Instead, think of it like this: if you lived in a world built around normalizing one type of person, that would make people who aren’t that type left out. If there’s no good reason to leave them out, then it’s stupid not to include them. You’re going to be part of the world that shuts them out for no good reason, instead of employing simple tactics that would include them. All you have to do is undo default behavior that likely serves you no benefit anyway.
Okay, that seems like a good ethic. I want to try to include the disabled but I don’t really know how, or else I’d be doing it already.
Great, you rule. Let’s do this.
1. Talk directly to the person, not the interpreter, attendent or their friends.
They’re not a kid, they are a free person. This can be hard to remember because man, they look so helpless. But they are in there, and they are people so you have to learn to treat them that way and not give in to your automatic feelings about what you think you’re seeing when you look at a person with a disability. You have to treat them like they are in charge of themselves (they are) and respect their personhood. Unless instructed to direct questions to an attendent (for some disabilities certain aspects of the person’s life ARE delegated to caregivers) direct what you intend to say to the person you are saying it to.
2. Speak normally, don’t talk louder, don’t use “children/old person voice” (maybe just never talk like that).
Unless asked to speak louder, don’t do this automatically, it’s creepy. If you wouldn’t usually talk with someone in that voice maybe don’t use it. It’s a common pitfall that comes from seeing someone who looks so helpless we think they must be infantile but it is a mistake to engage this way. In my experience, most people don’t talk with me this way after my first dick joke, but not all people want to make awesome jokes just to get their peers to quit using teacher voice on them.
3. You say the disabled aren’t helpless but they do have a disability! What do I do if they’re struggling?
This is a terrific question because it does come up. With some people, it comes up every interaction they have due to the nature of their disability. The best categorical suggestion I can offer is: ask before helping. Even with doors, or other common things. Unless it’s an emergency you’re going to risk making the person feel like you think they are powerless. It’s a painful feeling by the way.
That being said, so is trying to do things beyond your physical capacity, a nice balance here is going to be required. Here’s a tip: like with ANY person, a disabled person must be able to meet you halfway and communicate too. It’s not all on one party, and this can be done with a simple “Hi, would you like me to grab that door for you?” If they say no, you must respect them. It can be a finesse art to communicate fluidly about needs/help/assistance, but practice and feedback help. As an example, if a person has an emotional disability teaching them that they won’t be punished if they ask for people to treat them the way they want to be treated can be very helpful. They should be able to say “I have anxiety, so I will ask that you are understanding if I have to leave the room to soothe myself. It’s not a personal attack or manipulation, and I don’t need you to seek me out or do anything. Does that make sense? I usually need about 10 minutes or less, so I hope that you will help me out by being patient.” What’s good about the statement is that it addresses common reasons able people may behave that way (so you know why this is different), it asks for what is needed, and it makes clear what is not needed. This tactic could benefit us all to learn so please practice it with everyone.
4. I notice you’re picky about your words when you talk about disability, do I have to do that too? If I don’t will I be attacked as an “offensive person”?
Excellent question, and one we don’t usually ask because instead of being answered inquiring minds are punished. Listen, this is not going to be an easy answer because nearly every individual differs in how much this matters to them, and what they prefer the language used around them to be. A person has the right to have their disability talked about fairly and without harm. You can do this without suffering yourself, though you may have to learn new words or a new perspective. It’s brave to explore your own biases and try to undo them so that you can interact better with others. That said, Your ignorance is not permission for another person to be abusive toward you, so if this happens simply say “I just want to learn what you prefer to be called, and though you may be upset remember everyone has different preferences for language, so the only way for me to do this right is for you to help me.” This is a good statement because you’re not blaming them for being offended (sorry, you don’t get to decide what is offensive no matter what you intended when you spoke), you’re not defending your actions (which would likely lead to their rebuttal), and you are telling them what you want.
A simple tip is to think of talking to them as a person first. So instead of saying my handicapped friend you say my friend with a handicap. In Europe, my understanding is that it is not okay to call someone handicapped (the correct term is “disabled”), though in the USA it seems to be a preferential matter up to an individual. You may think this seems tiresome as you try to figure this out, but it’s just a matter of practice. Usually saying “A person with a disability” is the least likely to make you look like you hate people. Further, maybe figure out their name and call them that instead of struggling to identify a person by a characteristic (remember, a person first not a disability first). Never call a person with a disability a “victim” or a “sufferer”, the reason is it puts a person into a stereotype where they are helpless, powerless, incapable, and reduced to their disability as self-identity. Not only is that boring, it’s inaccurate! People with disabilities have interests, wants, needs, skills, and perspectives just like all people and it’s freaky and weird to reduce them to one characteristic, and further to label them as this reduced state. Who would want to be called “the curly haired”, “the far too short”, or “the ugly”. If you’re reducing a person to a characteristic you’re doing it wrong.
I don’t personally like “special”, “handicapable”, or “differently abled” because they sound patronizing, like my feelings are “special” and need fakey code words to trick me so I don’t feel bad about my “bad” characteristic. It says there’s something so horrible about being disabled that we must not speak of it which stigmatizes a person who has a disability. We don’t have a case of the Voldemort, so please no cutey euphemisms.
When in doubt either call someone by their name, or if you must discuss their characteristic, ask people what they prefer. The most accurate thing may even end up being describing their exact disability: a person with cerebral palsy, a blind person, a person who has cancer. I could write a lot more on the subject, but rules of respect will cover most issues, so be open and this should be easy to demystify.
5. This person has a walker/wheelchair/cane/doohicky what should I know about it?
Most people with mobility aids think of this as part of their personal space. Don’t lean, grab, adjust, or fiddle with it. If you think about it, it sounds weird to touch someone’s mobility aid but a lot of people do this. When I’ve transferred to chairs, I’ve had people try to put beers, plates, or clothing on the unoccupied seat of my walker. These aren’t jerks but their lack of knowledge can make them a problem for other people, so try to be mindful. Again, if the person looks like they’re struggling, ask before touching them or their mobility aid unless it’s an emergency. It’s helpful not to refer to someone who uses a device as a “wheelchair person”. Think about it, that’s a weird thing to call a person. If you need to talk about their device it’s helpful to say wheelchair user. An example: “Pyotr has a walker, so when we pick him up to go to the movies is there room in the trunk or do we need to move stuff around?”
6. I want to include disabled people but my house isn’t handicapped accessible at all, what now?
Accessibility can be an issue, and in regard to a person’s mobility, never use that to disqualify them from an activity if possible. An example would be “I want to invite Gloria but she can’t come because of her wheelchair”. Usually disabled people already have ways around some of these problems (manual chairs, personal care assistants, family members) and if you’re not a dick you probably don’t mind helping lift a device around so they can do things with you. That said, it’s totally true that accessibility isn’t common, I can’t even go to places designed for accessibility like malls and expect to be able to go into any store I like (even though many of these spaces are legally mandated to be accessible). It’s one reason why some people with disabilities sue (“they’re a jerk” usually isn’t the reason). It can feel really demoralizing to get excited to go to a restaurant or movie theater and then find the place has just enough stairs (usually 4!) so that you can’t get in. If you want to be a good friend, imagine how that would feel before just leaving the person at home.
A good tactic here is to plan ahead: call a place and ask them about accessibility. Some businesses have back doors, secret elevators, or other systems (removable ramps) to help those with disabilities patronize the business that you wouldn’t know about if you’re just standing outside the building sulking about the stairs. A simple “My friend is a wheelchair user would they be able to access your business?” is a good start. If the answer is “we’re sorry no,” don’t make war! It’s not even weird for this to happen and chances are you’re talking to a low-paid powerless employee. Instead, thank them, and if you really want to know try to contact the owner and ask if they intend to make their business more accessible in the future. It’s more productive than unloading unto a stranger.
Keep in mind that many who have disabilities do no use a device, do not “look disabled”, but may require accommodations. Ask them what you can do to make an interaction easier! They may want to have shorter visits, visits in their own home instead, or they may ask you to make the call for take out instead of them. Usually this stuff would be easy for you, but would make a huge difference to them so if you can do these things try to.
7. I am curious about a person’s disability, what can I ask?
Don’t ask people “What’s wrong with you?” It’s not uncommon to be asked this but by now you should know why that’s a problem. It’s marginalizing to imply that something is “wrong” with them, but further it implies that their privacy is not a right either. To treat someone as a person first means you give them the same respect others deserve. You know it’s weird to ask a person how often they masturbate, or what kind of underwear they have on, and in a similar way a person’s disability is sometimes private to them. A good thing to ask (in case you need to know especially) is “Is there anything I should know about your situation to make our interactions more successful?” or if you don’t want to ask anything, wait for them to talk about it. It’s also okay to say “I’m really curious about your situation but I respect your privacy. Know that anytime you’d like to open a discussion on the subject I’m interested.” This is a good statement because it states your feeling, and what you want but respects their right NOT to discuss it with you. They do not owe you an explanation.
8. But I may have a liability/dangerous situation/medical emergency I am unprepared for, and I want to make sure that won’t happen.
I don’t care. It’s their choice what they choose to disclose, and if there is truly a serious risk a responsible person would tell you what you need to know. Most people with disabilities who need to already have solutions or plans for dealing with these issues, chances are you won’t even need to be involved. Part of treating a person as someone of equal value is that you don’t give priority to your wants over their rights.
9. I saw this person with one leg who bungee jumps! That’s amazing!
It’s helpful not to act like we’re magic because we can do something you can do. In general, some things are much harder for us, and when we can do things that are hard it’s nice to be commended, but that shouldn’t sound like “Wow, I didn’t know you people could do things like that!” which is exactly like saying: “Amazing! The dog can talk!” Instead, it should sound like “Whoa, I didn’t know you bungee jumped! That’s terrifying, and I think you’re a bad ass for doing that.” Or whatever your amazement is really about. If you have to evaluate your commendations too much you’re getting paranoid. It should be clear that whatever you say would be okay to say to an able person, too.
10. I went to my friend’s house and she has Lupus. I had to move her purse so I wouldn’t step on it and now she’s mad at me. What did I do?
Please don’t move things without asking, it may be hard for people with cognitive disabilities to find later. Not all people with Lupus have cognitive disabilties, mind you, but if a person has ANY kind of cognitive issues they likely have a system in place you don’t know about. It’s not okay to touch, move, or rearrange their things without consulting or being asked to. I think it’d be weird to do this with able persons, and I can understand why it can be tempting to do with a disabled person (making room for them or others) but try to ask before doing it. They may literally forget they have an object if you move it. I have this problem myself, and it’s hard to explain it to people, so it helps a lot if people just accept it because there’s not a lot of cause to touch people’s stuff.
Great, I read everything, now do I know how to talk to people with disabilities?
You certainly have a great set of tools and new ideas to consider. With practice, you’ll be awesome at this and notably inclusive of persons with disabilities. I won’t be surprised if you have smoother and more rewarding relationships with all people you interact with. As a final note, please remember that many people have disabilities that are invisible, so be considerate of others, because you never know when that “healthy young woman” using the elevator for one floor has hip pain, or that man who looks like your brother has autism.