How To Talk To Disabled People
Here’s a step by step guide on how to talk to a disabled person!
Step 1: Look at them, not their caregiver, friend, spouse, or family member.
Step 2: Literally just talk to them like you would to any other human being.
If you completed these two steps, congratulations. You did it!
In all seriousness, people don’t know how to talk to me.
It’s kind of funny, in a stick-a-fork-in-my-eye kind of way. For some reason, people assume that because I’m sitting in a chair, I don’t have the ability to speak beyond a simple ‘hello’. Rather than trying to have a conversation with me, people prefer to talk about me to whoever I’m with while I awkwardly watch.
It happens even when I’m the one to start the conversation. It’s one of the greater mysteries in my life. Why is there some sort of universal assumption that I can’t speak? Where did it come from? When will it end? Should I wear a sign? Get a tattoo on my face?
I spent my teenage years going to shows as often as I could, usually at random (not the nicest) bars and clubs around Orlando. I was recognized regularly at most of the venues, and I was friends with a bunch of local bands as well. It was my favorite thing to do, and I felt most at home when I was at a concert.
And yet, somehow, even though people would recognize me, they would talk to my mom instead. WHY? I’m literally wearing your t-shirt, buying your music, and you’re still talking to my mother. Even when she made it clear she didn’t want to be there. Even when I tried to talk to people I had known for years! Every time it happened I had to refrain from driving my wheelchair into a busy city street.
It still happens constantly. When I have a doctors appointment or a meeting, when we’re out shopping together or at a restaurant. All the time. I’m better at speaking up than I used to be, but the problem hasn’t gone away.
As much as this annoys me, I almost kind of prefer it to the baby talk.
I’m a 25 year old woman, the fact that I’m sitting in chair is absolutely no reason to treat me like I’m 4. I never understood that logic. I know everyone says it comes from a place of good intentions, but please, stop infantilizing disabled people.
Every time you do that, you’re denying that person the respect they deserve. You’re not taking them seriously and you need to stop and ask yourself why. (*cough* ableism *cough*)
Is it because you think they’re less intelligent? How smart you think someone is or isn’t shouldn’t determine how well you treat them. Is it because they’re in a wheelchair? A mobility aid shouldn’t alter your demeanor, even with all the negative assumptions placed on it. Is it because you feel sorry for them? Look, I have a lot to say on that subject, but no one can police your feelings. You could at least try to hide them a little better, though. When someone makes it obvious that they think your life sucks, it doesn’t exactly feel like a warm hug.
All snark aside, this is a real problem that every single visibly disabled person I’ve ever met deals with on a regular basis. When we aren’t taken seriously, we struggle to have any control over our lives. Our choices get invalidated, and doctors, teachers, caregivers, or sometimes even strangers take over for us. It’s as though we’re toddlers who are incapable of making any decisions despite our maturity and life experiences.
This behavior and treatment places an unfair burden on us and puts our lives in danger.
Obviously, getting ignored or listening to baby talk from a stranger in Walmart isn’t a direct threat to anyone’s safety, but that behavior stems from a place that is. When you strip us of our dignity, independence, choices, or even the right to say ‘no’, what are we left with?
I feel like I need to clarify that I’m not saying you shouldn’t acknowledge someone’s disability. Ignoring a part of someones identity is never a good call, especially when it’s already ignored by society as much as disability is.
I’m saying that you shouldn’t have to pretend a disability isn’t there in order to have a normal conversation.
If you’d feel uncomfortable speaking to an abled person the way you speak to a disabled person, stop what you’re doing. You don’t need to put on a special overly cheerful voice. When you’re talking to someone, actually talk to them and not whoever they’re with, even if they’re nonverbal or have a translator with them. You don’t need to speak loudly, slowly, or use short simple phrases. You don’t have to make it a big deal.
Disabled people are just people. Relax a little and stop making small talk more uncomfortable and awkward than it already is.