This post is based on the video I did last year for Scope’s End The Awkward campaign, giving advice about interacting with disabled people. Scope explain things far better than I do – I’m just giving my own perspective on things here – so I strongly suggest looking at their website and videos. But I hope you enjoy my post on the subject as well.
In general you just need to be friendly and respectful, and treat each disabled person as a person first and foremost, just like you would with anybody you meet. Don’t make assumptions about how they feel or what they can do, be tactful about any questions you ask so you don’t get too personal, and offer to help instead of forcing it on them. And don’t worry if you do make an innocent mistake. These things happen. Nobody’s perfect, and nobody’s expecting you to be. We do understand if you feel awkward around us – all we want to get across is that you don’t need to feel that way. 🙂
There are plenty of people who have never met or spoken to a disabled person before. Or they’ve had the opportunity to, but have either been too afraid to talk to them, or have interacted with them in a way that’s a bit inappropriate or a bit over-keen.
Some people can be a bit too personal in the questions they ask, or they can be a bit too forceful in the help they try and give. And there’s nothing wrong with offering help and being curious about disability, that’s great. But you have to be a bit tactful.
But the first thing I would say is, if you’re someone who has been afraid to talk to a disabled person, and perhaps avoids it – don’t be shy. We’re just ordinary people. We’re not gonna bite. We know that it’s awkward for you, we know we’re different. But we want to integrate into society with everybody else, because we are just as capable of many things just like other people.
The word disability implies a lack of ability in many people’s minds, which isn’t true. Disabled people can do an awful lot of things. A lot of them do more than able-bodied people do really. So we’re just like you, that’s all it comes down to. We’re just slightly different, that’s all. But then, everybody’s unique, whether they’re disabled or not.
And that’s the first tip that Scope give on their website – see the person, not the disability. Because we are all people, first and foremost. We just happen to have something slightly different about us, or wrong with us, or whatever. But we are still people. We still feel, we still have emotions, we still have brains, we can still do things.
We can do a lot that normal people do. And who is really normal? Normal is a strange word in itself really. As I say, we’re all unique, so calling someone normal is a bit difficult really.
So if you are in a situation where you can talk to a disabled person, perhaps at a social event of some sort, or you’re with a group of friends and there’s a disabled person amongst you, or if you’re chatting to someone at a bus stop even – just say hi and talk to them normally. There’s nothing wrong with that. Obviously don’t accost someone in the middle of the street randomly when they’re walking along. But, if you have the opportunity to talk to a disabled person, and you want to, then don’t be afraid to.
The key thing, as Scope makes clear in their second point, is to not make assumptions. A lot of people find out about disability, or they see that someone has a disability, and they assume that everyone who has that condition is the same, that they have the same needs and that it makes them feel the same way. That’s not true.
I’m visually impaired, and I know lots of other visually impaired people, but we’re all different. We all do different things with our lives, we all cope in different ways, we all have very different variations of conditions. No two of us are the same. And we all have different needs, we all use different technologies and aids to help us, and some conditions are worse than others.
Likewise wheelchair users are all very different. Some of them can actually get up and walk a very short way. Some are confined to their wheelchairs completely. There are a whole multitude of different conditions that can lead someone to be in a wheelchair.
So you can’t assume anything. We all make assumptions when we first meet someone, or we first find out a new fact about someone. It’s only natural, it’s human nature. But you have to try and put those assumptions aside. It’s not always easy to do that, but you just have to.
If you find yourself thinking “Oh, this person must be feeling like this,” or “I bet that person can’t do this” or “I bet they can do that” or “It’s a pity they can’t do this or that” – push those thoughts aside. Don’t think like that, because you may very well be surprised as to how the disabled person actually lives their life. A lot of the time when people talk to disabled people, they’re often surprised by what that disabled person can do. And that says a lot really.
Disabled people strive hard to be independent, so that their disability doesn’t overcome them, it doesn’t get in the way. We all want to be independent and to do things for ourselves as much as possible.
So you shouldn’t really be surprised that many disabled people are able to act independently on their own and do things themselves. Of course, some do need very close care and attention and they do find life very difficult, but even then you can be surprised at the mindset they have. It’s still perfectly possible to be happy, even with a severe disability. It’s not the end of the world. There are ways of making people feel comfortable and happy.
And just as it’s natural to make assumptions, it’s also natural to be curious. And that’s a good thing. You may well have lots of questions going around your head. But you’ve just got to be a little bit careful as to whether you ask them or not.
The better thing to do, if you’re talking to someone with a disability and you are curious about it, is to first of all ask if it’s OK to ask questions in the first place. Many disabled people will be happy to talk about it, because they like other people to feel at ease around them, and they like the fact that people want to learn more about it, and they feel comfortable talking about it.
Butother people, quite understandably, don’t like to talk about it, and would rather just carry on with normal conversation. And that’s absolutely fine too. Respect their wishes, whichever way it goes.
And if you are allowed to ask questions, then just be careful about which ones you ask. Don’t go too personal, don’t ask them how they use the toilet or about intimate relationships and sex. Because that’s just not appropriate. You wouldn’t ask an able-bodied stranger questions like that, so why ask a disabled person those things?
It’s bad enough that some benefit assessments ask very personal questions of disabled people. They often don’t like answering those kinds of questions as it is. So don’t start firing personal questions at them yourself as well.
If you’re with a visually impaired person for instance, there’s no point in asking if glasses would help, as I often get asked, because they’d be wearing them if they did. It’s not that hard to figure out really.
At the end of the day, and this is the next point that Scope make, the disabled person knows what they need far better than you or anyone else. They know themselves best, they know what they can and can’t do with their lives.
Even if you know somebody else who has a similar condition, that does not mean that the disabled person you’re now talking to also goes through life in the same way. It doesn’t mean that they feel the same way about their disability as anyone else you may have met.
Everyone is individual and that really is the important thing to remember. Everyone is unique and goes through life in a very different way, and copes with things in a very different way.
So don’t base any assumptions on other experiences you’ve had. You can always mention in your conversation that you know someone else with that condition, and that you’re perhaps curious to know if they have similar experiences to this other person you’ve known. That can potentially be a bit of a starting point for a conversation about their disability. But don’t just assume that everyone’s the same.
I know I keep saying that, but it is important, and it is true. I think it’s the making of assumptions and prejudices and the stereotypes that make things awkward. Because it leads people to assume that every disabled person with a certain condition is the same.
So don’t try and tell the disabled person how they can live their life better. Don’t try and tell them how they can make themselves better, how they can cure themselves or anything like that. The disabled person has no doubt looked into all sorts of ways that they can help themselves and make their life easier. So there’s nothing you can really say that will change that.
If you want to offer help to a disabled person – which is wonderful, because a lot of them do need help sometimes – don’t force it on them. Disabled people are very independent, because they want to be and they have to be. So don’t assume that they need everything doing for them.
As I say, a disability doesn’t mean a lack of ability in all areas. So rather than forcing help upon them, rather than guessing what they might need and doing it without asking, it’s better to just make the query. “Would you like any help?” or “If you need any help, please do let me know.” Something like that. And that’s fine. That’s all you need to say.
Then the disabled person will tell you if and when they need assistance. They might not need any, they might need a little bit. But they often don’t need their hands held for everything they do. Now you can take a step back and just let them do as much as they can or want to do.
I think there’s often a worry that if you don’t try and help a disabled person, that you’ll somehow upset them or offend them. And that leads people to try and help as much as they can, but then that goes over the top and they help too much. So let the disabled person be independent as far as they feel able to be, and let them ask for help as and when they need it.
Of course, if it’s obvious they need help – for instance, if they’re about to cross into a busy road without realising there’s something coming – then by all means stop them and keep them safe. But equally, don’t grab someone’s arm and pull them across the road to help them to the other side just because you’re trying to be nice. If the blind person is standing there waiting to cross the road themselves, then chances are they’re perfectly capable of crossing that road themselves. So by all means offer to help, but don’t forcibly help.
So those are the kind of things I would say. I think the main tip is not to be shy. We’re very nice, we’re all normal people. We may be slightly different to you, but that’s fine, don’t worry about it.
There’s nothing wrong with being curious, just be a bit tactful if you’re going to ask questions. Ask permission first, because that says to the disabled person that you respect them and their wishes, and also that you’re interested. And disabled people like that. They like to know that people are curious and interested a lot of the time, because it does show that you care, that you want to learn more about people who are different to you.
And then don’t forcibly help them – just offer to help, and let them say if and when they need any assistance. Because they will be able to tell you what they need.
Don’t make assumptions, don’t prejudge. Just treat each person as an individual, and treat them as a person first and foremost. Because that’s how we want to feel. The disability, while of course you need to be aware of it, is really secondary, because the person wants to be treated as a human being. They want to be part of society, they want to make friends, and they want to just get on with their lives.
So be friendly, show respect, show a willingness to help without forcing it on them, and you’ll be fine. There’s nothing to be afraid of, no reason to be shy. And once you’ve spoken to one or two disabled people and you’ve got to know them, you’ll see that it’s fine.
I would recommend going on Scope’s website, because they can put things far better than I can. And they’ve made some great videos featuring Alex Brooker from The Last Leg and various other people, who have spoken about the awkward situations that they’ve been in. It will give you a very good sense of the sort of things to avoid, and how you should be behaving around disabled people.
It’s not difficult, it’s all basic respect and common sense really. And if you do find you’ve done something in one of those videos and you start feeling guilty or ashamed about it, don’t worry. Just take it as a lesson learned.
We all make innocent mistakes. A lot of these mistakes are purely because people care and they want to help, and maybe they’re just worried that they’ll upset or offend a disabled person if they don’t do it. But it’s perfectly fine to just take a step back and allow the disabled person to be as independent as they want to be.
I hope this post’s been helpful to you – thanks for reading!