The Mighty Logo

Stop Infantilizing Disabled People

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

This article is for people who mean well, but often do not know what to say or whether or not they are saying offensive things to disabled people.

Recently I went to a bar with some friends who aren’t disabled and at the end of the night a woman came up to me, grabbed my arm, and told me that I was “so adorable.” Able-bodied people may not immediately see anything wrong with this “compliment” in this scenario, but at a bar as a woman in a wheelchair, being called “so adorable” is not the “compliment” you may think it is. It is actually viewed as infantilization, which is when an adult is treated like a child.

As disabled young adults, we already face an uphill battle to be taken seriously in entering careers and dating spheres, etc., and these comments and actions reinforce our fears. This has happened to me more often than I would like to admit. Despite my two nose piercings and three tattoos, people, primarily feminine-presenting, infantilize me. I was at a department store after a difficult day, my wallet, car keys, cell phone, and tattoos all on display (I am very clearly an adult), but an older feminine presenting person came up to me and said, “Aww, you’re so sweet, where’s your mom?” I remember them reaching out with their hand like they wanted to touch me. I made space between us for two reasons: I did not want them to touch me, and I had so much anger inside of me because I was so tired of not being seen as a human being capable of taking care of myself. I only replied with, “I’m [my age]” and rolled away.

This and every other instance of infantilization has ruined each day and resulted in many venting sessions to my friends, family, and therapist. Even in my workplaces, I have had co-workers reach over me, ignore me, and tell me how to use my wheelchair and that I am using it wrong.

I think we have a lot of work to do as a society. If you would not say it to someone who is able-bodied in the same situation, don’t say it to a disabled person. If you would not say it to an able-bodied adult, don’t say it to a disabled adult. If you do not know this person, maybe don’t say anything at all. If your “compliment” has the words “someone like you” in it at some point, do not say it. Compliment our outfit maybe, or makeup, or hair. We are not an inspiration for getting out of the house. Lastly, we do not deserve to be treated like children.

Getty image by Piksel.

Originally published: July 19, 2022
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home