A few years ago, someone asked me, “What should I say to someone who has a disability?” My response was, “Saying hello is always a good place to start.”
I was trying to make a joke of course, but throughout my lifetime, I’ve been asked that question a lot. On some level, I understand it. Most people do not know others with disabilities, so I can understand the uncertainty, fear, and nervousness that can be behind this question. A lot of people have told me that they are afraid of offending a person with a disability by saying the wrong thing and that keeps them from saying anything at all.
What we people with disabilities know, and would like to tell everybody, is that even though we might look different, talk different, or act different than you, we’re human, just like you. We have the same wants, needs, and desires as everyone else. It might just take us a little longer to communicate them.
I don’t want to speak for everybody with a disability, but in my opinion, most of us are ok with answering questions about our lives because we would rather people ask us questions directly, than be afraid of offending us.
Again, since we are human too, occasionally, we might be in a position where we can’t answer a question or don’t want to answer. However, I would hope that wouldn’t keep someone from asking. I promise that 99 percent of the time, we aren’t going to bite your head off; and the other one percent? That person was probably just having a bad day.
If you want to talk to someone who has a disability, remember to talk to them directly, even if they’re with another person. If the person with the disability needs help communicating, they will find a way to get their point across. I’ll bet you that it will be worth the effort because they’re probably as opinionated about various subjects as you are.
It’s also ok to ask us if we need help doing something. If we say no, it doesn’t mean that you offended us, but if we say yes, trust me, we’re glad you asked.
I’m not trying to make it seem that communicating with people with disabilities is always easy. Sometimes it can be really challenging to understand someone with a disability, especially if the person does not communicate verbally.
However, to be honest, we’ve all had challenges communicating with people who are important to us, disabled or not.
You also don’t need to have a background in social work or special education to be good at communicating with us. To me, having a willingness to try, and being open to new ideas is more important.
Sometimes when I write an article similar to this one, I worry that people will think that I instinctively know all the answers on disability issues because I live with one. I don’t know everything about everybody with a disability. Nobody does. Disabilities are incredibly different, even if two people have the same disability, and I’m learning new things all the time.
For example, a couple of years ago, I attended a conference where a man around my age with Down syndrome, and a national disability rights activist, was one of the keynote speakers. He spoke about his struggle coming to terms with his disability growing up.
I was shocked. I knew that just because a person has an intellectual disability, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be intelligent; it just means that they might learn at a slower pace or learn differently. However, it never even crossed my mind that someone with an intellectual disability could understand their disability and need to come to terms with it, just like I have to do with mine.
While I felt embarrassed about my ignorance, it also felt really good to come away with learning something really important. It was also a good lesson for me to learn that no matter what the disability, a person can still lead a full life.
I had an idea for a discussion that you could have at your chapter meetings: 3 Questions:
- If you could speak to people in your communities about what it’s like to live with a disability or how to talk to someone who has a disability, what would you want to say?
- Who would you want to talk to?
- How would you want to talk to them (A play? A video? Writing a Story? Speaking in Front of a Group?)
If you do have these discussions, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) because maybe it is something that we can work on together.
Until Next Time,