What to say when someone says they have a disability?

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How do you respond when someone tells you they have a disability? For starters, there is no need to apologise for their a disability.

Photo for the article: What to say when someone says they have a disability? Young Black man wearing grey t-shirt asking to be quiet with finger on lips.

Feeling soooo sorry to hear that I'm disabled? Keep that to yourself | Photo ©Aaron Amat / Adobe Stock

What to say when someone says they have a disability?

How do you respond when someone tells you they have a disability? Do you say, “I'm sorry.” Why are people always apologizing for having a disability? Why do people say 'sorry' when I tell them I am disabled. There is no need for one.

Ever tell someone you’re disabled, and they immediately offer an apology?

For many of us, this happens quite often when we disclose we have a disability. Maybe there’s this accompanying puppy-dog pity look of concern that stops short of a pat on the head, and a Paypal offer to your, um … charity case-looking self.

Insert tight shot of mouth uttering the slow-mo, deep-voiced utterance of whatever the disabling condition is. *needle scratch* Like dance floor cleared from the fusillade of sulfur-smelling farts you let off or something.

When conversations that were surfing levity turn undertow serious and awkward. A pearl-clutching concern that never, quite, pans out. Or maybe the reaction is akin to throwback rapper, Positive K’s response of “You gotta what? How long you had that problem?”

This puppy-dog pity look of concern and accompanying questions is when you know a person has an “infirmed,” but not *informed,* idea of what it means to be disabled.

Where the person lets you know right away all about their negative worldview of disability and how “awful” and “limiting” it must be. 

This is also right about the time when they tend to correct your self-description of disability. They “don’t see” your disability, double and triple that when other identities that don’t mirror their own get roped into the conversation. They also "don't see" the color of your skin.

By the end of the chat they may as well be talking to a chalk outline because, ahem, you don’t really exist if they keep erasing and/or “overlooking” parts of who you are. 

They might even admit in hushed tones that perhaps a friend’s cousin, elderly neighbor who baked their favorite cakes, frat brother, father’s 3rd wife’s housekeeper, half-sister’s science teacher, etc has a disability so they “know,” what it is there, you’re “suffering” from.

You might be even be construed in their confusion as “not like” those other bitter cripples who whine and complain, as they ply that saccharin-sweet lie of “the only disability in life is a bad attitude.” 

And since you do rather well for yourself, it must not be “that bad.” Thanks, I think.

Stop apologizing for being disabled

Maybe, like me, your mind begins to wander as your eyes internally roll, and antennae go up searching for an easy segue into something else. But always having to be the teacher, and less often the student enjoying the scenery is so tiring. 

And maybe, more often than not, you run with the tired routine, half-chuckle, and count to yourself how long the exchange will last. You probably forge ahead and tell the back-handed complimenter that disability is, in fact, an identity-marker beyond medical diagnosis and not an indictment. That it incorporates pride, yes pride, culture, political movement, and history. That it is okay to use the words disabled and disability.

You might expound further, telling them that many of us are fond of exercising creative control in telling our own damn stories from our lived experiences. 

We need more depictions beyond sadness and supercrip; we need to be shown in nuanced and meaningful ways across the media landscape to get absorbed into the collective consciousness. 

[A SuperCrip is someone who is portrayed in media as having overcome their disability, despite the fact that nothing about their body has changed.]

If you’re feeling especially energetic, leap into letting them know that “DIS” prefix is not only “not” and “un” but has a Latin and Greek derivative meaning “duo” and “two” hence *another* way of doing and being in the world.

If you’ve gotten this far with them, by now, you might be cold/hot/hungry/thirsty/need to pee/pick up little Chris from daycare or put more quarters in the parking meter. 

Maybe you want to get on with your day and show up in the universe sans apology. No matter what, you might want to hold on to your sense of humor. You’ll be needing it again soon, quite sure. 

"What to say when someone says they have a disability" was originally published as “How do you respond when someone tells you they have a disability?” This article is republished from Heather Watkins blog; Slow Walkers See More with the kind permission of the author.

Article by
Heather Watkins

Heather Watkins, the author of "What to say when someone says they have a disability?" is a disability advocate, mother, graduate of Emerson College with a degree in Mass Communications and a resident of Boston, Massachusetts.