Having spoken to a range of disabled people, Raya AlJadir rounds-up the 10 things people definitely shouldn’t do when meeting someone with a disability – you’ll probably recognise a lot of these!
It is a fact that regular interaction with people who are different to us and from various backgrounds, equips us better in communicating with one another. But despite this, and the mixed nature of our society, many people still struggle when meeting someone with a disability, creating an awkward atmosphere.
To help end these awkward moments, I’ve spoken to a group of disabled people, from friends to members of online groups, to produce a list of 10 things that people shouldn’t do when meeting a person living with a disability.
1. The stare
Having a disability is not an invitation to stare. It might be intriguing to see someone that is different to you, but that is not an excuse. We are not a ‘show’ or some kind of entertainment for you to be amused by.
Staring will not gain you any information either. If you sincerely do have questions, then politely speak to the person. That is much better than standing at a distance, staring and making them feel uncomfortable.
2. Refusing to make eye contact
So here it is – when you are on the opposite side of the street you stare at the disabled person, but when you are in front of each other and actually speaking, you look at everything but the actual person. This is an all too common scenario.
It is a sign of courtesy to look at the person you are talking to and, just because the person is disabled, it does not mean they should be treated with any less respect. If they are a wheelchair user then stoop or bend down so you are at the same level as them. That way you can both hear each other better and communicate in a more engaging way.
3. Patting on the head
A disabled person is not craving an emotional bond or a hug, and certainly not a pat on the head, so ditch the patronising acts. Even if you have the best of intentions, you must remember that the person with disability is an adult like you, regardless of height/ weight/appearance, and deserves the same respect that you expect of people. Would you want to be patted on the head?
One disabled person I spoke to said that while at an event, a lady she met for some reason felt the need to pat her on the head as a form of goodbye. It may seem like a nice gesture or a form of affection, but a disabled person is not a child or pet.
4. Talking indirectly
Do not ignore a disabled person and talk to their companion instead. Many people living with a disability feel frustrated by strangers they meet talking to their able-bodied friend, family or carer, and blanking them.
One disabled woman told me about an incident where she had asked a stranger for directions and, despite her having asked him directly, he addressed her non-English speaking carer instead of her. The question forces itself here – why do that? Why when someone was talking to you (and obviously capable of communicating), do you chose to reply to another person just because of their physical ability.
5. Don’t ask the “What happened?” question
Curiosity is a natural human trait, but how would knowing the reason for a stranger’s disability have any significance to your life? I have heard so many stories about disabled people being stopped by strangers asking what had happened to them, clearly assuming that they are disabled because of an accident, as though being born disabled is a rarity.
Knowledge is important and learning about disability is a commendable thing. But there is a difference between seeking information for constructive purposes and just plain curious interference.
Remember, not everyone is comfortable with their disability and may not want to talk about it. If you want to learn about disability, get to know the person first, then ask questions.
Just because a person is differently abled to you it does not mean that they are in a worse situation, or in pain, or have no purpose in life and deserve your pity. Many people with disability lead a full active life and yes, they might endure pain, but they need understanding and acceptance rather than pity.
7. Assumptions based on falsehood
If you see a disabled people in the company of others, there is no need to tell the person with a disability, “You are lucky to have such good friends who take you out” or “You are lucky to have such a wonderful mother who cares for you.”
It may seem harmless, but it is hurtful and patronising. Bear in mind that your sweeping observation based on your interpretation of the situation is not necessarily factual. For example, who says that the disabled person needs others to take them out? Or, even if they did, why would they need praising anyway, isn’t that what friends do? Just as most mothers would treat their children with care.
8. Passing judgement
Don’t judge a disabled person based on appearance – not every disabled person is angelic, nor in need of help, or of low intellectual ability. Don’t assume that a disabled person is not educated enough or smart enough to converse with you. Many disabled people are university graduates.
Being disabled does not make you possess refined, angelic qualities either. Being different in ability does not make them special creatures – they are essentially human beings, and all humans have flaws.
Finally, don’t assume that the disabled person is in need of help. If they require it, they will ask, so don’t just plunge in without asking if assistance is needed.
9. Don’t reprimand children for your action
If your child is staring or asking questions loudly about a disabled person, don’t tell the child off and shout. Instead, either explain in detail what disability is, or encourage the child to speak to the disabled person rather than staring with fear from a distance. Children copy adults, so whatever you will do, they will imitate.
10. Don’t pray for them
Often people associate God, religion and salvation with disability. I’ve heard of people starting to thank God and pray loudly in front of a disabled person from being saved from his or her predicament. While it is important to show gratitude and offer thanks to God for our health and well-being, there is no need to do it overtly and openly in front of the disabled person. That signifies superiority, as though you are better off and have been chosen by God instead of him or her.
Also, when you see a person living with a disability, don’t offer them your prayers for a ‘cure’; although in theory it is a nice gesture, don’t assume that a disabled person wants a ‘cure’ or to walk – we are all different people with our own aspirations. Just because you were born without disability and regard it as the norm and best status, it does not apply to everyone.
Similarly, don’t ask for a prayer from a disabled person – they are human beings just like you with no added power or closer connection with God just because they are disabled. God needs no go-between, so don’t offer or ask for prayers.
By Raya AlJadir