Disability can sometimes be a tough topic to talk about. It’s especially hard when people without a disability struggle to fully grasp what’s it’s like to live with one.
But when it comes time for talking, many of us with a disability shoot ourselves in the prosthetic foot, by strictly defining the kinds of conversations we can have. Occasionally this happens through lists of what people can’t or shouldn’t say to us, rather than what they can or should.
They pop up often enough: “10 things not to say to someone with a disability”, or “10 things you shouldn’t say to someone in a wheelchair”. They include things like castigating strangers for offering their help, or for asking about a person’s disability.
At best, these lists represent the personal views of their authors, which is fine. Too often though, they suggest they’re universal disabled truths. At worst, turning a conversation about disability into a list of “don’ts” tells people that it’s best to avoid engaging about issues of disability at all, for fear of offending someone.
The assumption pervading the lists is that if people simply follow them, we’ll all have better conversations about disability. But if you start a new job and each morning for the first three days the guy sitting next to you says “here’s a list of things not to say to me”, on day four you’re not likely to have the most meaningful conversation ever. Chances are you just won’t bother talking to him at all.
Truth is, those kinds of lists don’t foster better conversations about disability, they foster fewer. In the race to be righteous, they jettison what’s right. I’m tempted to say we should start by ditching lists altogether. But people love lists. So here’s mine: five things you can say to someone with a disability:
1: “Hello, hi, g’day, how are you?” Hello and its equivalents are perfectly reasonable ways to begin a conversation. Try them out on a person with a disability sometime. We won’t bite. Don’t say all four at once, though. That’s just weird.
2: “Can you tell me about your circumstances/disability?” As long as you accept “no” or silence as a reasonable response, it should be okay to ask. It’s entirely up to the person with a disability to decide if they’d like to engage on the issue or not. People with a disability are well-tuned to spot what might be a genuine but clumsily worded question, as opposed to something that’s meant to be insulting. But let’s stop assuming people are going to somehow get a good sense of the issues we face if we don’t communicate them.
3: “Would you like a hand with that?” Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all gave each other a bit more of a hand – disabled or not – every now and then? I don’t mind if you ask.
4: “I think you’re very inspiring” Advertisement
This is a tough one, and is the subject of plenty of well-founded criticism. It can suggest a misunderstanding of disability and the impact it has on us.
People with a disability don’t feel inspirational just because we’re getting on with our lives. It’s not our job to make you feel a warm glow for telling us so. But we all need as much inspiration in our lives as we can get – and inspiration is a very personal thing. How and where an individual experiences it, is up to them.
If you’re going to say this to someone with a disability, though, make us earn it. Do it after you have an understanding of the issues we face; after you’ve had a meaningful conversation with us.
5: “Tell me about yourself” This is about getting to know someone as a person and letting them choose the parts of their lives that define them. People with a disability are writers, painters, runners, parents, accountants, introverts. Some of us have no legs or can’t see or can’t hear. All of those things get poured into the great big blenders of our lives.
Exactly what flavour of person we are at the end of it all is best discovered by long, funny and honest conversations – over coffee, wine, hot chocolate or mineral water. Whatever beverage you choose, start by talking.
If we want to bash through barriers confronting people with a disability, we need the community to have a better understanding of us. This probably means some uncomfortable conversations – for others and for us. Focusing on what people shouldn’t say isn’t the way to build good relationships. If we can face living our lives in these bodies, we can face some difficult exchanges along the way.