Knowing how to assert yourself as a person with a disability is important to maintain positive communication and healthy boundaries with others. Being assertive not only allows us to advocate for our needs and our health but can also help ensure we have what we need in life. Because we are limited physically, it can be even more important for people with disabilities to practice being assertive, even perhaps more so than our able-bodied peers.
As a woman who uses a wheelchair, being assertive is not a skill that came easily to me; however I quickly learned that being assertive did not mean needing to be negative or unkind. Rather I look at practicing assertiveness as a way to improve my communication with those around me. In many instances practicing assertiveness has helped me avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings by clearly stating my needs and expectations with others, especially others who may not be in my immediate friends and family circle.
Being "assertive" can sometimes have misleading negative connotations, but being assertive should be looked at as a positive tool to help build your relationships. Remember, assertive does not mean aggressive. The dictionary definition of assertive is "confident and direct in claiming one's rights or putting forward one's views" whereas aggressive is "characterized by or tending toward unprovoked offensives, attacks, invasions." Assertiveness is not defensiveness or hostility.
Assertiveness can help us be our own self advocates and lead to greater self-confidence. Think about how great you'll feel if you ask join a group of friends for coffee or let your healthcare professional know you're feeling uncomfortable rather than missing out on a good time or just putting up with discomfort! Another important part of being assertive means not feeling bad for sticking up for yourself. If you feel hurt or confused about a situation, it's ok to confront someone about it in a non-confrontational way. Be objective. Speak in a calm tone of voice and avoid becoming defensive. Phrases like "I noticed that..." can help a conversation avoid blame or turning into an argument. Another good rule of thumb is stating phrases using "I" rather than "you" to remove any connotations of blame and get your real point across while staying focused on the issue you are trying to address. Remember asserting yourself can be a POSITIVE experience!
Practice really does make perfect. If you're not comfortable using assertive techniques, here's some easy ways to practice getting better at assertive yourself in your everyday life:
Try something new today – try going to a new grocery store or a place around town you'd like to visit. Taking a small step out of your comfort zone can help you build confidence and provide an opportunity to interact with different people.
As a group of friends or family if you can join them in doing an activity.
Don't be afraid to say no if you're asked to do something you're not comfortable with or interested in.
When going to the store, ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask for help to find or reach a different size or color or tell the retailors what you're looking for.
Try writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper to practice sharing your opinion with others.
To wrap up, below is "A Bill of Assertive Rights" taken from You Have the Right to Say No, Without Feeling Guilty by Manuel J. Smith.
I. You have the right to judge your own behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and to take the responsibility for their initiation and consequences upon yourself. II: You have the right to offer no reasons or excuses for justifying your behavior. III: You have the right to judge if you are responsible for finding solutions to other people's problems. IV: You have the right to change your mind. V: You have the right to make mistakes—and be responsible for them. VI: You have the right to say, "I don't know." VII: You have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others before coping with them. VIII: You have the right to be illogical in making decisions. IX: You have the right to say, "I don't understand." X: You have the right to say, "I don't care."