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7 Questions to Ask a Person With Disabilities Instead of ‘How’s Work?’

It often starts the same way. “How’s school going? How are your classes?” “How is work?”

These questions are so commonplace because they’re easy. When you’re communicating with people you haven’t seen in a while or don’t know very well, making small talk is a great way to catch up, get to know one another or just get situated. It’s not controversial or political, so it carries less risk for running into drama.

Now, imagine you’re in a social setting where you’re going through the motions of small talk, except you have physical disabilities or a mental illness. It’s possible you are having a hard time finding a job because many jobs in your area aren’t wheelchair-accessible. It’s possible you lost your job because you had a manic episode. It’s possible you missed too many classes due to chronic fatigue syndrome and now you have to drop out for the semester and try again next time.

These questions can put extra stress on anyone who is struggling to get by with work or school — or struggling to find a job or be accepted to a school, period — but it may especially affect those who live with disability or illness. I’m disabled, and so are several of my friends and family members, and I know I almost always prefer to skip small talk because I’m so afraid the conversation will turn to questions that make me feel pressured to be more “successful” than I am.

I propose we all stop asking these questions. Unless someone tells you they really want to talk about their job or school, because they enjoy it or are proud of it, I think we should do away with success-based questions altogether. These questions can become stressful for those with disabilities and illnesses, but they also place a lot of weight on success in general, rather than on the person’s individuality. “How is work going?” may sound like an innocuous question, but if you’re stressed about finding or keeping a job, it can sound like an attack on your personal success.

I’d prefer some other questions in place of these ones:

1. Ask about the person’s hobbies.

The main goal of these questions usually isn’t to find out about someone’s job, unless you’re specifically looking for advice about a field you want to enter. It’s usually all about hearing how someone has been and what their day-to-day is like. Instead of focusing on work or school, which not everyone has, it might be a good idea to ask about hobbies. Ask, “What are you reading right now?” or “How is your painting coming along?” If the person is a new acquaintance, ask them what they like to do instead of what they get paid to do every day. People love to talk about their hobbies, so this doubles as a great conversation starter.

2. Have you heard about this recent piece of news?

The person you’re talking to may be completely unaware, but you can always try bringing up really common news, whether it’s hard-hitting political news, or fun pop culture news. If they have heard about it, you can continue the conversation from there into other topics pretty easily.

3. Do you have any pets?

People who have pets love to talk about them, and people who don’t have pets but love animals often do, too. You can talk about your favorite kinds of animals, and what kind you’d have if it were legal to have any animal as a pet. There’s really no end to where this conversation could go.

4. Bring up food.

While this can be a sensitive subject for those recovering from eating disorders, you can try to gauge someone’s comfort level as soon as you ask what their favorite food is. If they seem to want to chat about it, then go for it. If they avoid eye contact and seem uncomfortable, they may have issues with food, and you can move on to something else.

5. What super power would you want to have?

This allows people to be creative and think outside the box. It’s definitely outside the realm of your usual small talk, but isn’t that what makes conversation fun, anyway? Delving into the deeper stuff?

6. What music, movies, books, magazines, newspapers or TV shows do you like?

Depending on the person’s interests, they may not like all of these categories, but it gives you a starting point. Does the person like sports? Do they listen to podcasts? Watch YouTube channels regularly? Do they prefer live TV, or binge-watching a show all at once?

7. How’s your self-care going?

If this is a reconnection with an old friend or someone you know well, you might feel comfortable asking them how their self-care is going. Bringing up symptoms and disabilities can be a tricky subject, as some people want to talk about it, while others don’t. Play this one by ear and ask the person you’re talking to if they feel like discussing it. Often, people with disabilities and illnesses aren’t asked how their disability or illness is treating them, or how they’re practicing self-care — so they may be touched you want to genuinely ask.

There are so many ways to make small talk, get to know someone or reconnect with an old friend without making the questions all about personal success. Some of my best conversations actually happened with co-workers at a previous job. Because we were at work, there was no need to talk about work or our careers, and it was the summer, so I wasn’t in class at the time. Instead, the conversations focused on the details of life: our hobbies, our favorite and least favorite foods, what we did with our weekends, our family lives, or funny stories about our friends.

There are times when I really want to talk about work and school, because I’m studying for a master’s in a field that I love, and I actually like what I do for work. I even get excited about it. But school and work can also feel like a chore, especially if you do either or both full-time. As much as you may love your classes or your job, there are times when we all feel bogged down. I think we would all have more meaningful conversations if the “How’s work/school?” question wasn’t so compulsory, and we just talked about what we’re genuinely excited about at the time.

Follow this journey on 22 Tutus by Alaina Leary.

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