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If You're an Adult Who's Still Nervous About Talking to People With Disabilities

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First up, I want to tell you it’s OK if you don’t know anything about people with disabilities, even if you’ve reached adulthood.

Man pushing an older man's wheelchair.

Photo by Paul Stickman on Unsplash

Lots of people were raised in environments where our questions weren’t answered. Disabilities were spoken of in hushed tones. Children with disabilities were institutionalized for life with their parents being urged to forget they exist.

Lots of people go about their lives never getting to know a person with a disability (that they know of). Then when someone turns up in your workplace, school or church who has a visible disability, all that fear and miseducation keeps you from seeing them as a person to whom they can introduce themselves and strike up a friendship.

What if I say something offensive?

What if I say something foolish?

It’s so cool that they’re out and about though, that’s really inspiring.

I didn’t even want to come today and there’s nothing wrong with me.

What do I even have to offer if they’ve got their s*** together and I don’t?

Should I ask that lady I know who has a disabled son about what I can and can’t say? That seems like a waste of her time…

Have I been staring this whole time?

Crap. Now it’s awkward and they’ll think I’m judging them.

The main thing is that you’re here now, you’re curious and you care. You can stop the overthinking.

A crash course on disabilities

  • A disability is any limitation, disorder, illness or disease that substantially affects a person’s life.
  • Some people are born with a disability and some people get them during their lifetime. Some get them because they got sick, others because they had an accident.
  • Some people are permanently disabled and some people are disabled for a little while. There are some disabilities that you can see and many you can’t see.
  • Around 18 percent of Australians have a disability. For people over 60, that figure jumps to 53 percent and only increases with age. If you think about it, people who stay able-bodied all their lives are the unusual ones.

Man with leg amputation sitting on a stool outdoors.

Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

Here are seven things to remember

  1. Talk to people with disabilities like you would any other person who has interests, passions, favorite TV shows, favorite sports, opinions and pop singers they hate. Because they are any other person.
  2. People with disabilities are people. Expect a person with a disability to have a full range of experiences, emotions, feelings and actions. Because they do. Sometimes people with disabilities act rude. Sometimes they’re lovely. They are allowed to have the same range as everyone else. They’re not there to fill out your diversity quota, and they’re not there to be your inspiration.
  3. Ask before you help. Sometimes the way you want to help might be something a person with a disability doesn’t want, or could hurt them. There might also be things you can do to help that you might not have thought of.
  4. Don’t be nosy. By all means ask about their experiences, how they feel, what they want and need, and what you can do to make their lives easier, but don’t ask for their medical records so you can decide what’s going on for yourself. If you’re not their primary care physician, you also probably want to hold off from talking about the miracle cure to their illness.
  5. Be patient. If you know someone with a disability that varies from day to day and they skip your birthday party, but they’re at another outing next weekend, it’s probably not about you. Give them the benefit of the doubt and remember some days are good for parties, and some demand naps. That can be upsetting for everyone.
  6. Remember people with disabilities have it tough. People with disabilities don’t receive the endless font of government funding that some news sources imply. The disability support pension has a very close relationship with the officially stated poverty line. Specialist healthcare in Australia isn’t free. The NDIS doesn’t give every person with a sore back a butler, a driver and a pony. Many people with disabilities don’t even qualify for government help because their standards are so strict.
    That’s just the government side of things. People with disabilities are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, crime and sexual assault. They experience harassment in the street, and discrimination in their workplaces, places of worship and in public. Take note how the things I just mentioned don’t have to do with having a disability.
  7. Managing a disability is hard work. The shifts are all day, every day, and it pays nothing. They have appointments to make, referrals to get, therapies to undertake, exercises to do, records to keep, communications to keep up with, special diets to stick to, medications to arrange, fetch and take.
    It’s not uncommon to have a team of six specialists who don’t talk to each other at all, which means they have to understand their own disability inside and out so they can relay information to each of their specialists.
    All of that is without considering school, work, socializing, volunteering, family or friends. All of those can be hard enough to manage even if you don’t have a disability.

That all sounds a bit daunting, doesn’t it? Sometimes it can feel a little too big to deal with.

Here are seven things you can do

  1. If you find a person with a disability interesting and fun to be around, and they like you too, be a friend. If you don’t like them as a person, don’t pity them and act like your friendship is a magical gift.
  2. When you hear language in your workplace, social groups or family that dehumanizes people with disabilities, call it out. Ask the person telling the joke to explain why it’s funny. Don’t get all huffy and offended, get direct and firm. “That’s not a good way to talk about people, mate.”
  3. If you can’t see a person’s disability, don’t accuse them of faking it. If you’re hurt that your friend with a disability couldn’t make it to your birthday party, don’t accuse them of being a flake.
  4. If you find yourself in a situation where you know someone with a disability who you don’t like, don’t use their disability against them. A person who sees someone’s disability as a thing to use against them is not a good person.
  5. Ask how you can help, if you want to help. Do it in private. Don’t do it because you want to be seen helping a person with a disability. Ask about what things in their lives could be made easier with the time and resources that you have.
  6. If you’ve got a kid and they’re staring at a person with a disability, don’t scold them or usher them away. Explain to them that the person’s body or brain is different, that’s OK, and highlight something they have in common.
  7. If you have authority in a workplace, social group or place of worship with a person with a disability among its members, ask what can be done to make it a better experience for them. If they need time to think about it and make a list, thank them for doing that work for you.
    If a person with a disability went out of their way to notice every way a venue, workplace, church or business wasn’t built for them, alert someone with the power to change it, follow up and make sure it has been changed, attend meetings about it, write letters and make phone calls, their job would never be done. Be proactive and thank them when they do make a contribution to your establishment. They’re making your place better for everyone.

This story originally appeared on Reflex Social Services.

Lead photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Originally published: August 18, 2019
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