There are currently around 56.7 million Americans who live with a disability. And it's important to have some knowledge of how to engage with these people on a respectful, conversational level. You don’t want to give offense by inadvertently saying the wrong thing in your attempts to be friendly and empathetic, so here are some pointers for the sort of comments you should avoid:
1.) “I will pray for you to be healed.”
One of the most offensive reactions to someone’s disability is to pity and patronize them with this type of comment. Their condition is an inescapable reality that they have to live with, and many say that they would not change their circumstances in any case even if they could. Prayers may be well-intentioned but most people with debilitating health conditions would rather that you focus your positive energy on pushing your elected representatives to fight for practical matters, such as independent living facilities, for enforcing the ADA’s ban of employment discrimination, and safeguards for health insurance coverage. Many people with disabilities also consider it patronizing to be praised for being so “inspirational.” Although meant as a compliment, this can actually have a negative impact, reminding the recipient exactly how different society views them, when they really want to be treated like anyone else.
2.) “Were you born with that affliction/condition?”
Associate a disability with the whole person. Others often see them solely in terms of pain and suffering. Some people can’t imagine a less-than-able-bodied person being happy and see through a victim lens. Like everyone else, individuals with disabilities are seeking happiness and fulfilment in their lives, despite the extra challenges that they have. No one wants to be constantly reminded of what they may be missing out on.
3.) “We have two wheelchairs coming through.”
No one wants their personhood reduced to a piece of equipment. Besides that faux pas, there are plenty of other outdated, dehumanizing terms to be avoided at all costs, such as cripple, retard, invalid, dumb, mute, lame, insane, etc. The term “handicapped” was popular for around two decades from the 1970's onward, but is now no longer acceptable, as society started to prefer the word “disability”, a term which describes a medical reality but doesn’t imply a permanent societal disadvantage. Certain more recent terminology like “physically challenged” and “differently abled” are also now considered to be inappropriately over the top, since they are so hypersensitive as to be actually insensitive. For example, someone with a sprained ankle is physically challenged, but that is clearly not the same as being defined as disabled in a cultural and physical sense.
It is considered best to first recognize someone’s humanity, and then their disability, e.g. say “ a person with epilepsy”, rather than "an epileptic". To define someone as “disabled” implies that they are flawed or broken. Naturally, if you are unsure which term someone prefers, asking them directly is the best way to get the right answer.
4.) “But how do you use the bathroom?”
While it may be okay to ask someone about their condition in a respectful way, asking about the intimate details of their lives is a definite no-no, as if you are treating them as a circus sideshow. There is definitely a need to educate people on disability accessibility issues, but there is a limit as to what needs to be discussed. If you have manners, you would not question anyone else about their toilet habits, so there is no reason to assume that someone’s disability makes it any more acceptable to ask.
Picture courtesy of www.wheelfreedom.com