When it comes to chatting with someone with a disability, there are a few rookie errors (and assumptions) that people sometimes make.
As a general rule of thumb, talk to someone with a disability just like you’d want to be treated yourself – be polite, respectful, and interested. As for what NOT to say? Here’s a cheat sheet with a few tips.
Firstly remember there is nothing wrong with a person who has a disability so never ask “What’s wrong with you?”.
That aside, asking questions isn’t a bad thing as it shows you’re interested in getting to know someone. But in any conversation, asking anything overly personal is not ok, especially if it’s the first time you’ve met.
Immediately asking someone about their disability (“were you born that way?” for example) says to the person that the first thing you noticed about them was their disability.
Also imagine how you’d feel being asked about your medical history by someone you hardly knew! Not the basis for forming a great relationship, is it?
As you get to know someone better, you might start to talk their disability – but remember some people might be very comfortable talking about their disability, while others may not be, so take cues from the person themselves.
Many people assume that it is a mammoth struggle for people with a disability to even leave the house, or that they are not capable of leading an active, social, interesting life.
For most people with a disability, this couldn’t be further from the truth!
The other problem here is the view that people with a disability are out of place in certain spaces, like clubs. But why shouldn’t someone with a disability be on the dance floor or out having a drink with friends? Absolutely no reason that we can think of!
Again, this is a well-meaning sentiment that comes across all wrong.
First of all, talking about “fixing” or “curing” someone’s disability immediately suggests that there’s something wrong with them, when there isn’t. Having a disability is part of many people’s identity – it’s not something they see as a negative, and nor should you.
On top of all that, it’s likely that the person you’re talking to already has a strong network of medical professionals to support them, so it’s best to leave the recommendations up to them.
Talk about a backhanded compliment! The real problem here lies in the ‘but’. It suggests that being pretty doesn’t ‘go’ with having a disability – and that if you have a disability, you should for some reason be frumpy or unattractive.
Of course this is ridiculous. Whether a disability is visible or invisible, people with a disability can be fabulously gorgeous.
Everyone can use a little help now and then, whether they have a disability or not – so this is a bit of a tricky one.
While you might want to make things easier for someone with a disability, it’s important to respect their space and independence. A good approach is to offer to help, but don’t make it too big a deal (or be offended if your offer is turned down). There’s a big difference between offering a helping hand, and taking over.
For some misguided reason, people occasionally treat people with a disability like they’re children. Unless they really ARE children, this is clearly not ok!
Never assume that someone with a disability is any less intelligent or mature than you are. Excessive use of terms like ‘buddy’ and ‘sweetie’, or hair ruffling and fist bumping can come across as patronising or just plain cringe-worthy.
You know that thing that happens when you’re travelling overseas, and someone asks you if you know their random friend in Australia? And of course, it’s someone you’ve never heard of, because Australia’s population is enormous? Well, this is the equivalent of that.
People with a disability don’t all know each other – there’s no secret club, so it’s not really worth asking!
One of the ickiest things you can say to someone with a disability is to say nothing at all. Whether it’s a waiter in a restaurant or an acquaintance on the street, many people won’t even acknowledge someone with a disability – instead, choosing to address a person they’re with. This is just downright rude (after all, who likes to be spoken about as though they’re not there?!).
Also don’t ever assume someone who is non-verbal can’t understand what you’re saying. Don’t be too shy to talk to them directly – if necessary, they may just use an aid such as a talking device or communication board to respond.
While some people slip into childlike language, others pump up the volume or start talking really s-l-o-w-l-y. However, even if the person you’re talking to has a hearing impairment, neither of these things actually help (sorry, but it’s true).
Just speak at your usual pace and volume, and make sure the person you’re talking to can see your mouth (in case they rely on lip reading).
And if they don’t understand, don’t repeat yourself over and over – just try phrasing things in a different way.
Once again, this is a well-meaning comment that can come across as a bit patronising. OK sure, if the person you’re talking to has done something incredible, like set an ambitious goal and achieved it, then sure it’s appropriate to say they’re inspiring.
But if you’re just saying that because the person has a disability, hold your tongue – in their eyes, they’re just living their life and probably going about their day-to-day which may mean going to work, cooking dinner, and then watching the Bachelor! A great life sure – but probably not actions they feel they need praise for.