Things to Know About People With Disabilities

By Lauren Presutti

Here’s something to chew on.

This should be basic common sense:

– Stop shielding your children away from understanding disabilities by Sshhh-ing them in public. Let them stare and encourage them to ask the disabled person their questions. Normalize it. Teaching them to shy away is not helping anyone.

– I’m disabled. Say the word. Say disabled. (But if somebody else requests you to use person-first language, “person with a disability,” do that for them. Literally just ASK someone how they identify or whether you’re offending them or not.)

– Stop using disability euphemisms because that becomes toxic positivity and it also erases the disabled identity from the person, which is damaging. Stop saying you don’t see the wheelchair. See it and normalize it.

– Stop saying “handicapped person” because it’s almost never appropriate to say. It’s somewhat okay if you refer to places or objects that way (handicap entrence), but you’ll look much more educated if you switch to saying “accessible” entrence.

– Stop making cringe-worthy jokes (“do you have a license to drive that thing / your wheelchair?” to disabled strangers in public. They don’t need you to cheer them up and you’re probably crossing boundaries and making them feel uncomfortable or misunderstood. Literally just say hi instead.

– Stop expecting your disabled friends to ease your discomfort with their disability. Allow the person to say things without you squirming in your discomfort. It’s exhausting for the disabled person and your discomfort is not their problem.

– It’s okay to feel inspired by a disabled person but it’s not okay to objectify disabled people as inspirational or heroic for simply existing as their authentic selves.

When feeling inspired is okay:  It’s okay to feel admiration/inspiration toward people with disabilities because you recognize the complex challenges they face and you admire their strength and resiliency. That shows that you have empathy and respect for them, and it also means that you’re acknowledging your ability privilege and holding space for them to exist as someone facing a different reality than you. You’re honoring their reality and SEEING them. Empathy is always a good thing.

When feeling inspired is not okay:  Inspiration across the board becomes a problem when it is broadly casted as an “automatic” thought toward strangers with disabilities you don’t even know. It becomes a problem when the media objectifies disabled people as inspiration to produce a feel-good story that really only benefits non-disabled people (“disabled girl gets invited to school dance,” “person helps feed disabled boy his McDonald’s,” “disabled child participates in normal dance class”). Those things should not be newsworthy. They should be the norm. It also becomes a problem when advertisements show a disabled person exercising with the phrase “your excuse is invalid.” You shouldn’t be using disabled people to elicit feelings of inspiration. These are just some of the things surrounding problems of blanket statements of inspiration/admiration.

But if your admiration/inspiration is coming from a good place in your heart where your empathy is strong enough to see that people with disabilities have unique challenges that often require a greater level of strength and resiliency than the average person, that’s a good thing. You’re seeing the person. You’re connecting on a human level. That’s what everyone wants – to feel understood and connected.

As with everything, there is a balance. There’s a balance between feeling inspired toward someone and also just normalizing the disability and viewing the disabled person as a regular human dealing with some things. We all have challenges. It’s okay to normalize disability-related challenges. But it’s absolutely a balance because we don’t want to dangerously normalize things to the extent that we no longer have empathy for disability-related challenges. It’s a balance.

– Stop assuming disabled people aren’t having sex. Stop viewing their non-disabled partners as saints. That’s offensive.

– Stop making excuses for being “unable to relate” to a disabled person. That’s ridiculous and a poor excuse for shying away.

– Stop glamorizing disabled people who are “bubbly and happy” all the time. Nobody is like that all the time. Disabled people are human and experience all emotions just like you. Stop patronizing them.

– Stop assuming disabled people are angry about ableism or inaccessibility. We aren’t all activists. Some disabled people are not even associated with disability matters.

– Stop assuming you won’t have a disability. You can become injured or be diagnosed with a medical condition at any point in life. How would you want to be treated if that happened? Probably like a regular normal person dealing with some shit. It’s not heroic or special – it’s just normal life.

– Stop being surprised when a disabled person exceeds your expectations for them. Ask yourself why you held low expectations and what in society contributed to your belief system. At the same time, don’t assume every disabled person can overcome the same barriers that one person might have overcome. Systemic oppression is a thing.

– In fact, just stop assuming all disabled people are the same. We may be fundamentally different from one another in significant ways even if the diagnosis is identical.

– Don’t assume these common sense statements encompass everything you should know. Start asking yourself why you didn’t already know these things, and ask yourself what else you should know.

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