How to talk to a disabled person
How to talk to a disabled person?
Now, it shouldn’t be required, but we’re going to start off this blog on how to talk to a disabled person by explaining how not to be a dick when talking to a disabled person – welcome to the world we live in!
Talking about disability, did you know that disability can be visible as well as invisible. Kind of like the nuts a super-secret squirrel has just hidden in a tree away from the prying eyes of other nut lovers.
My disability is not obvious to anyone meeting me for the first time. It’s only when I start stripping for them, that they realize I’m not your average bear.
Even though my stripping in public days is behind me (the police cease and desist order took care of that), I still have a disability, and sadly that can make things a tad awkward when I mention it to people.
Feeling uncomfortable around disabled people?
1 in 5 people in the UK are disabled, so it is likely you know someone with a disability even if you’re not aware of it, or perhaps you have a disability yourself. Studies have revealed that a staggering two-thirds of Brits say they feel awkwardly uncomfortable around disabled people.
And the ‘awkward’ feeling is really what being a dick around disabled people is all about. If you’re not used to being around a disabled person this can make you feel uncomfortable.
Feeling uncomfortable around disabled people comes from a fear of disability. It can come from fear of reacting inappropriately around them. Or even fear of acting badly towards the disabled person. You may not be sure how to talk to a disabled person. You probably don’t know what is acceptable and what isn’t.
This uncertainty triggers panic, and when the panic sets in, you become as awkward as f**k.
Why is it so important to learn how to talk to a disabled person?
To stop the awkwardness around disable people.
For both disabled and non-disabled folk out there, it is important to address the elephant that is in the room, which is the awkwardness felt when talking to a disabled person.
Even for me (someone who is disabled), occasionally when I’ve met another disabled person, a little bit of panic sets in as I suddenly think I’m going to cause offense.
Well, here’s the lowdown for you. You’re not Donald Trump (thank god). You don’t go out of your way to mimic a disabled person with the aim of getting a cheap laugh.
So sit back, relax and let me take you through a 10-step guide on how how to talk to a disabled person – you’re welcome.
A 10-step guide on how to talk to a disabled person
Don’t talk down to disabled person
If you want to know how to talk to a disabled person why not begin by not infantilizing them.
Don’t patronize them by saying “how well you’re doing” as if you’re their mummy and they’re your toddler who has just managed to take its first whizz in the toilet. Channel your inner human being and JUST BE NORMAL because by being a patronizing twat, if anyone is looking like someone with an issue, it’s you.
Don’t ever point at a disabled person
If you need to point out a colleague who has a disability (for example), don’t point at the person and loudly state ‘The disabled one’. “What?” I hear you ask. I know. Weird right!
But the funny thing is everyone has a name – yes, even disabled people. So, unfortunately, you’re going to look a bit like a cock calling someone ‘disabled.’
Don’t speak extra loudly
If you want to know how to talk to a disabled person don’t speak extra loudly or slowly to a disable person – the person you’re talking to isn’t a moron. The only person looking like a moron will be you. If the person you’re talking to happens to be deaf, you speaking loudly won’t make them suddenly hear.
As a general rule of thumb, if you want to know how to talk to a disabled person just talk to them like you’d want to be treated yourself – be polite, respectful, and interested.
Don’t assume you know more about their disability than they do
Don’t start telling the said disabled person that if they did x, y, and z that they will feel better or that somehow this will help alleviate their disability.
You may feel it appropriate to channel your inner Dick Van Dyke when he played Dr Mark Sloan in Diagnosis Murder, but remember, that doctor was fictional too – you just don’t have the expertise, so shut up.
Don’t try to hitch a ride on a wheelchair or play with any disability aids
Totally spoiling your fun now, but weirdly it isn’t the most appropriate thing to ask someone who uses a wheelchair if you can hitch a ride. Equally, don’t assume to push the wheelchair for them, move them out the way etc. Don’t interfere with any aids a person has.
Just like you wouldn’t think of invading someone’s personal space without their expressed permission, don’t assume it’s okay to invade the space of a person who has a disability. Basically, don’t touch their shit.
If a disabled person’s disability is not visible, don’t say, “but you don’t look ill”
Wait! Hold the freaking phone! I have an invisible disability and I don’t look ill…*calls medical team to tell them to rethink the last 35 years*
Even though this comment is not meant to question the validity of the disability, that’s certainly how it comes across. It also suggests that you have a specific idea of how a disabled person should look.
Newsflash: there are lots of different forms of disability and there is no one size fits all. Even if you can’t see the disability, it’s there, so hush up and keep your thoughts to yourself.
Don’t think it’s okay to pat a disabled person on the head
Now, this is really for anyone, not just those with a disability.
Even kids feel patronized when someone pats them on the head after they’ve done something that apparently warranted the gesture. But when you go to pat someone with a disability on the head, stop and think and then retract that hand pronto. Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they need your patronizing validation.
Don’t tell someone “you’re so brave/inspiring/courageous.” etc
The thing is, this well-meaning sentiment, unfortunately, comes across disingenuous. In the disability community. we call it inspiration porn. We are not your inspiration.
Having a disability isn’t a choice and certainly doing day-to-day stuff, and in fact, just living is not brave or inspiring or courageous. It’s called just getting on with life. Whenever anyone says that to me, I throw up a little in my mouth.
Ask disabled people some questions if you want, as long as they’re not inappropriate
If you want to know how to talk to a disabled person it is okay to ask them questions about their disability. I think most disabled people have no issue with being asked a few questions as long as it’s not stuff like “can disabled people have sex?”
One caveat to asking disabled people questions about their disability. Don't ask them the very first time you meet them. Get to know them first before asking anything personal. Same as you would for any non-disabled person.
I’m quite open about my illness and disability and am happy to answer any questions asked of me. However, if you start getting too personal, or ask questions about my disability when we have just met, maybe it’s time to rein it in.
I had a friend who asked me so many questions about my disability it literally felt like I was flying with The Riddler. Not only did it annoy the hell out of me, it was so so tiring… anyway, she’s dead now…
Be human when talking to a disabled person and don’t panic!
Another newsflash for you: disabled people are people too!
Yes we’re people too and therefore we can be treated just like the rest of the humans out there in the big, wide world. By treating people who happen to have a disability exactly how you would treat any other person, you will find you’ll see the person, not the disability.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed this little run down of how to talk to a disabled person.
Only by talking openly about disability and being frank about the awkwardness that some people feel, will that awkwardness be addressed and got over.
And remember: unless you specifically go out of your way to be a dick, you won’t be a dick. Or at least, you’ll be no more of a dick than the rest of us.
Check out the End The Awkward campaign by Scope UK to learn more about how you can help see the person and not the disability.
Kate Jennings, the author "How to talk to a disabled person," always thought she was a writer, but didn’t believe it until her kidneys went into failure and showed her they don’t always have it in for her… kinda.