What You Should Never, Ever Say When You Meet Someone With a Disability
When you meet someone with a disability, never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever say “I’m sorry you have a disability.”
Don’t do it.
It drives us crazy.
Let me take a step back for a second.
To me, as well as many others, disability is a huge part of my identity. Just as much as I am a woman and Caucasian and a law student, I am also blind. It’s a facet of my personhood.
So now going back — if you say you are sorry I have a disability, it’s equivalent to telling me you are sorry that I am white, or that I am a woman. I don’t know about you, but I find that really offensive. I would never tell Taylor Swift I’m sorry she is a white woman. (Although I might say I’m sorry for her for other reasons…)
Now, you may be saying, “Claire, I would never say such a thing.” But I’m writing this because it happens more often than you would think. I’ve had people, in the strangest circumstances, tell me they were sorry. I have had strangers on the street or at the bus stop apologize; I have had pizza delivery guys and baristas apologize. You name it and it’s probably happened.
I’m proud to be a member of the disabled community. So please, please, please do not pity me for having a disability. The journalist Joseph Shapiro wrote a book called “No Pity” that I strongly encourage everyone to check out. It walks through the history of the disability rights movement and explains the frustration with the word “pity” far more eloquently than I am.
While I’m writing this post, I feel obligated to emphasize that most of us equally abhor being called inspirational. Don’t do it. Please, please, please, just don’t do it.
We find it especially condescending. We have learned to do things differently. We have adapted. So when you tell me that I am inspirational because I can live on my own with a disability, it’s offensive. I’m almost 27 years old. Yes, of course I am capable of living on my own. One of my closest friends, Cristina, who is also blind, and I used to tease each other about our “inspirational status.”
“Claire, you are so inspirational. You can eat all by yourself!”
“Cristina, you are so inspirational because you can get dressed all by yourself!”
“Claire, you are so inspirational because you can go out in public!”
“Cristina, you are so inspirational because you can breathe all by yourself!”
I wish there was a way to adequately convey in words the sarcastic and mocking tone of our voices during such conversations.
Cristina and I call it the “I” word, and Carrie Griffin Basas, a successful disability rights attorney and someone I look up to, calls it inspirational porn.
Now let me clarify. I’m not saying you should never recognize the obstacles people with disabilities face. On the contrary, I do appreciate when people respect some of the barriers I face as a person with a disability. Our society still has a long way to go to be fully accessible. I appreciate when someone recognizes that. I appreciate when people stand behind me when my rights are violated and acknowledge it’s unjust. Additionally, I’m happy to be an encouragement to others who have recently acquired a disability and see me as a mentor. All of those kinds of situations are completely understandable.
But there is a big difference between that and feeling bad for me and thinking I’m a superhero for being able to brush my teeth on my own. Respect people with disabilities for things they should be respected for. Just don’t pity us.
Follow this journey on An Unseen Perspective.
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