Hey, look. We know some people without disabilities feel awkward interacting with people who do. We’ve heard lots of folks admit that they want to be inclusive but are too afraid of making mistakes or not knowing what to say. We’re here for you, good people.
Let’s start with a simple list identifying five common social mistakes people without disabilities make. We’ll tell you what to do instead, and we encourage you to read up on what people with disabilities prefer. We’ve included some links below.
- Mistake #1: Deferring to the Non-Disabled Person Nearby
People with disabilities are super sick of people addressing the person they’re with instead of being addressed directly. You’d be amazed at how often people with disabilities sit at a restaurant while the server asks for their order from the date or parent or whoever is sitting with them. So, don’t be that person.
As writer Andrew Pulrang says, “Treat disabled people with the same respect and recognition you would give to any person. Speak to us directly, not to a third party next to us, our mom, dad, friend, or caregiver. Don’t avoid looking at us.”
- Mistake #2: Speaking Louder with a Side of Inspirational (*ahem* Patronizing) Remarks
You’d never turn to a stranger and sincerely say, “You’re so brave for getting out of bed today,” projecting your voice like you’re at a theater audition. Yet, for some reason, people with disabilities are forever dealing with others who speak at volume 11, slowly, congratulating them on everyday accomplishments like getting places, buying things in stores, and showing up to events they find interesting.
“People with disabilities as a whole don’t like being referred to as “inspirational,” especially when they do a basic task like, I dunno, go and buy some milk,” says BeautyAbility.com blogger Tiffiny Carlson. “We are just trying to live our lives like everyone else. Your comment will have the [opposite] effect, reminding us how different people still think we are.”
Also, trust that if someone with a disability needs you to speak louder, they’ll ask.
- Mistake #3: Over-Helping
Imagine you’re leaving work for the day and a co-worker offers to help you with your coat. You say no, yet the colleague puts your jacket on you, anyway. WTH, right? People with disabilities often find others doing things for them without asking or worse, refusing to take no for an answer.
“Help in a dignified manner with sensitivity and respect,” says United Cerebral Palsy. “Be prepared to have the offer declined. People with disabilities, like all people, are experts on themselves. If you’re uncertain what to do: ask.”
- Mistake #4: Thinking that Disability = Eternal Child
It’s super common for non-disabled people to assume someone with a physical, intellectual or developmental disability is locked in a childlike state. The cringe-worthy result is grown people treating another grown person like a toddler or grade school kid.
“It is a good idea to avoid words that suggest people are helpless,” says Work Without Limits. “It is also very important to address adults with disabilities as you would any other adult.”
Focus on the individual, not the disability. If the individual is an adult, give that person the respect of a competent adult and you’ll be alright.
- Mistake #5: Putting the Disability First
A very reliable rule of thumb is to remember the whole human being is much more important than the disability. A disability doesn’t define a person; the person defines the person. So, when referring to someone with a disability, use person-first language.
For example, you wouldn’t call a woman with cancer a “cancer woman” or a man with lupus “lupus man”. So, person-first language means you would say “a person with cerebral palsy” instead of “Cerebral palsy person” or “a child who has Down syndrome” instead of “Down’s child.”
As writer Cara Liebowitz says, “I don’t want to be identified solely on the basis of my disabilities. If I had to choose between the two, I’d much rather be known as That loudmouth who never shuts up in class than That girl with the walker. I want people to see me as a whole person, not just a disabled person. Disability is only negative because society makes it so.”