As a society, we’re at an inspiring point where children and adults alike are more aware of disabilities than ever before—but if you’re living with a condition, life probably hasn’t gotten that much easier.
Openly discussing the issues disabled people face is great, but when it comes to improving the day-to-day struggles, it takes a strong support system of informed friends and caring family members.
Let’s face it: Disabilities and the challenges they present are as varied as society itself. It could be blindness, impaired mobility, autism, the need for nonverbal communication, or an array of other conditions.
With so many ailments and circumstances to consider, it’s hard to address them with blanket statements—but, with a deep breath, we’re about to give it a try. Why?
Because we’re not really talking about disabilities today, we’re talking about the people behind them. All too often, they are not viewed the same as non-disabled people, yet they crave the same respect, the same enthusiasm, the same excitement, and the same bonds as anyone does.
Here’s what people with disabilities would like you to know.
A Person’s Disability Doesn’t Define Them
When someone uses a wheelchair, when someone requires extra time to speak, when someone can’t see the world around them, when someone has a mental condition that makes them see the world differently—when someone has an impairment, it can be tough to see past it.
The reality is, life with a disability is very different, and you should never pretend like someone doesn’t have a malady. To do so would mean invalidating their struggles and experiences.
But people living with disabilities do need you to look beyond their condition to see the person behind it. That person is just like anyone else, and that person deserves respect, kindness, and empathy. That’s why you have to think about how you speak to, interact with, and treat people with disabilities.
Ultimately, treating disabled people the “right” way is not second nature. Many of us have to dismiss internal biases or attempts to be over-polite and over-accommodating to actually get to know all the wonderful people behind the condition. On that note, let’s talk about some ways to transform those interactions.
The Best Intentions Can Still Hurt
People with impairments often rely on assistive devices, interpreters, or someone to help them through life. There’s nothing wrong with helping your blind friend navigate through traffic on a night out, but there’s a line that needs to be drawn.
No one wants to feel looked down upon, incapable, or like a burden—yet disabled people often end up dealing with these thoughts. This conversation is tough to have because “over helping” comes from a place of good intentions.
Grabbing someone’s elbow to help them around is a kind gesture…until you realize that they’ve been getting around without you for years. Sometimes it’s tough to hold back because it’s instinctual for us to reach out, but what these people really want you to know is this:
- They don’t want you to be another caregiver or assistive aid—they want you to be their friend.
- They want you to see them as a person.
- They want to be able to ask you for help, but they probably don’t want you to try to help constantly.
Of course, you care about them, but you’re not there to take care of them. Once you accept this and adapt your gestures accordingly, you’ll begin to form a deeper friendship with that special person so many people simply can’t see.
Communication Goes Beyond Your Voice
Learning how to communicate with a person who has disabilities is often the hardest thing of all, especially if they don’t communicate the same way you’re used to. There are a lot of misconceptions in this area, and there’s no single “right way” to communicate, even amongst people with the same condition.
So, how do you approach communication without making a wrong turn? First off, allow yourself to make mistakes because you need to learn as you go along. Remember that every person is unique—what works for one may not work for another. Second, after giving yourself the grace to mess up, remember this rule: Always assume understanding.
There’s a tendency for people to assume that physical conditions impact communication skills. That sounds silly when you hear it, but how often do people talk louder when speaking to a blind person or speak more slowly when meeting someone in a wheelchair? It’s rarely done with bad intentions, but that doesn’t make it okay.
Whether or not a person’s condition impacts their ability to communicate the same way you do, you must always assume understanding. This means never talking down to someone. This means never talking slow. This means never talking in a “baby voice.”
Assuming understanding means that if you start with absolutely no information about a person’s communication abilities, you speak to them like you’d speak to anyone else, regardless of appearances. Only once you try that and potentially find that they don’t understand you well should you begin changing your communication method.
By assuming understanding, you’re able to show respect to people with disabilities. You’re able to address them without talking down to them. And, most importantly, you’re able to gradually work out a communication style that is effective so that you can carry on a conversation just like two good friends.