44 common myths and misconceptions about disability

The word ‘disability’ is a broad term, but there are beliefs and misconceptions still widely held today that cross many borders. We share five common myths, and falsities that could change every day of the week. Although we can make light of some of the more ridiculous myths, the consequences are not always so easy to laugh off for those dealing with disability.

1. If someone uses a wheelchair, they can’t walk

This is a slightly more nuanced version of the historically popular; “all people who are disabled use a wheelchair.” Times have changed, and that ridiculous misconception is less prevalent now. But that hasn’t curbed the idea that everyone in a wheelchair is unable to walk.

The truth is that many wheelchair users and those using mobility aids are generally able to walk unaided, but perhaps cannot do so for prolonged periods or consistently. Simply put, someone does not have to be paralysed to require the use of a wheelchair. From multiple sclerosis to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, there is a range of conditions where someone may need to use a wheelchair.

What’s more, only 8% of disabled people in the UK actually use wheelchairs, so this myth misunderstands the complexity and broadness of what it is to be disabled.

2. You can’t say ‘disabled’ without offending someone

The use of language when talking about disability is important — there are ways in which people shouldn’t talk about the subject. From baby talk to the insistence that someone is ‘brave’ because they live a normal life, it’s easy to come up with examples of where people can feel singled out because of something that might feel pretty unremarkable. And that can be pretty offensive.

A lot of people wrongly believe that because there are a lot of ways to offend, they shouldn’t bother trying to learn. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of talking about disability — using identity first language or people first language. A simple understanding of both does not take much work, and an awareness of how you are talking and coming across goes a long way.

Briefly, identity first language means saying “a disabled person”, while people first language means saying “a person with a disability”. Some will prefer one way, and others will prefer the other. Having awareness is the crucial thing here, as well as taking note of what someone’s preference is. Many believe people first language to be the common preferred option, but this isn’t always the case.

A popular means of thinking about disability is through the social model of disability. This model does not see people known as ‘disabled’ as being disabled due to their impairments, but through society’s lack of accommodation for those impairments.

For example, someone isn’t disabled because they can’t walk for sustained periods — they are disabled because they aren’t able to use certain train stations that lack step-free access. This is a disability by society, not through medical difference.

Because of this, disability is often seen as part of someone’s identity — using people first language would in some ways miss part of their essence as a person. To people who see disability through the social model, disability is not something they carry around — it is part of who they are.

So everyone should be careful with language, rather than dismissing one way of talking or another. Whatever someone chooses to do, they should be calm and reasonable, and understand that what might be offensive to one person may be acceptable to another.

3. Only those with a mobility-related disability can have a Blue Badge

This myth is very prevalent and is made light of across popular culture — in-jokes, TV shows and so on. But it can be a very serious issue, and when someone loses their cool about something as humdrum as a parking space, it can be very distressing to the person on the receiving end.

Often, people who attack someone for parking in a disabled space without realising they hold a Blue Badge believe they are doing the right thing. They think it’s best to call out bad behaviour, whereas they could be (and probably are) targeting someone with an invisible disability.

A wide variety of conditions are eligible for a Blue Badge. From lung disease to chronic fatigue syndrome, the range of reasons someone may be parking in a disabled space is vast. It may also be the case that someone is picking up or dropping off someone who owns a Blue Badge, so vitriol directed at someone who doesn’t have a Blue Badge themselves could still be misplaced and damaging.

Passive aggressive notes on windscreens, tutting, or outright confrontation should be avoided. People should leave the policing of this issue to the police, or at least parking enforcement officers or car park staff.

4. Assistive technology doesn’t work/doesn’t exist

This is quite a specific issue, but a familiar one to so many. Let’s say someone sees a person wearing a hearing aid, do you think they might feel the need to speak unnecessarily loud? It’s an experience so many people have, and it’s one of the most confusing and illogical reactions to a disability. In speaking loudly, the person is not grasping that the precise reason for wearing a hearing aid is to stop the need for someone to raise their voice!

The same goes for all kinds of assistive technologies. There are a whole host of wearable devices that someone may wear to mitigate certain conditions or difficulties they face, and all too often they are seen in the complete opposite way to which they should be. Much of this problem starts and ends with people not wanting to get something wrong, which is the case with a lot of good-intentioned but frustrating misunderstandings.

5. People with disabilities don’t want to or can’t be in relationships

This is an especially concerning and common misconception. It feels almost ludicrous to mention as a serious point for discussion, but there is a startling level of ignorance that persists across society when it comes to romance. It isn’t necessarily that people are thinking about the possibility of relationships that involve people with disabilities. In many cases, it is a lack of consideration that someone with a disability might have an interest in their sexual or romantic side.

This lack of appreciation or understanding is hugely damaging. Such a feeling across society can, in turn, make it far more difficult for many of the population to experience romantic or sexual relationships.

The reasons for people having a high level of ignorance of sexual and romantic life for people with disabilities run deep, and the seeds are planted at an early age. Enhance the UK’s 2013 Sex and Disability Education in Schools survey found that 100% of people felt their sexual education did not take their disability into account. That is unacceptable.

One other troublingly widespread belief is that people with disabilities only want to date other disabled people, or can only date others with similar disabilities to themselves. Further to this — and more damaging still — is a perception of people with disabilities not being interested in sexual relationships.

This can lead to those with learning disabilities, in particular, vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment. The education and services on offer to young people must be consistent, regardless of disability.

More on Disability Horizons…

Updated February 2024

More Myths and Misconceptions of Disability

High-demand careers are off-limits.

Disabled people work successfully in all career fields in roles matched to their skills and interests.

Only disabled people benefit from accessibility.

Accessibility enables full participation for disabled people while benefiting others like older people, parents with push chairs, or those with temporary injuries.

Disability is a personal tragedy.

Disability is a natural aspect of human diversity, not inherently tragic. Disabled people have fulfilling lives.

Wheelchair use defines disability.

Wheelchairs enable mobility for various disabilities, but many disabled people do not use wheelchairs.

Disability encompasses an individual’s identity.

Disability is one aspect of identity. Like everyone else, disabled people have multidimensional identities and interests.

All deaf people can use sign language and lip read.

Sign language needs vary; many deaf and hard of hearing people do not use sign language. Not all deaf people can lip read.

Disabled workers have higher absence rates.

Studies show disabled employees have similar or better attendance records than non-disabled peers.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics report 2022 states: “Studies by firms such as DuPont show that employees with disabilities are not absent any more than employees without disabilities.” The report cites an internal study by DuPont, a large multinational company, which found that 90% of employees with disabilities had average or better attendance records compared to 95% for non-disabled employees.

Disabled people are always heroic.

Attributing heroism to simple daily living is condescending. Disabled people have diverse life experiences like anyone.

Being disabled means a poor quality of life

Quality of life for disabled people is not inherently lesser than that of non-disabled people. With access to appropriate support, accommodations, and respect, individuals can lead rich and fulfilling lives.

Blind people have a “sixth sense” that compensates for disability.

Enhanced use of existing senses naturally occurs, but this is not extrasensory perception.

There are several studies that provide evidence that blind people and some disabled people can develop enhanced abilities in their remaining senses:

A study in PLOS One found new brain connections in people born blind or who lost sight early in life. These new connections enhanced their hearing, sense of smell, touch and cognitive functions like memory and language. These are naturally occurring and not ‘super powers’ or beyond the usual limits of other people.

Disability Workplace Accommodations are overly expensive.

Workplace accommodations have low costs, often under £500. Many have no cost.

Transportation issues prevent employment.

Disabled people use diverse, flexible transportation options to get to work.

Disabled individuals pose safety risks at work.

Research indicates disabled workers have safety records equal to or better than peers.

Disabled people always need help.

Many disabled people are independent, assistance should be offered, and never forced. Most disabled people prefer independence over unrequested assistance.

Managing disabled staff is more challenging.

Most managers report no meaningful difference in supervising disabled versus non-disabled employees.

Reliability at work is affected by disability.

Studies show disabled employees have similar or better attendance and reliability than peers.

Disabled People’s Job capabilities are limited.

Disabled people work successfully in diverse occupations when reasonable accommodations are provided.

Special interview requirements are needed to interview a disabled person.

Disability awareness helps interviewers, but standard techniques still apply.

Special education is always necessary for a disabled child.

Most disabled students are integrated into typical classrooms with some accommodations provided.

People with disabilities are brave and courageous just for living with a disability.

This implies disability itself is tragic. Viewing disability as tragedy and warranting sympathy is misguided. Disabled people have self-worth beyond disability.

Disability always means illness and pain.

Not all disabilities involve illness or pain. Disabled people have overall good health and pain levels like the general population.

Disabled people are a homogeneous group that can all be treated the same way.

The disability community has diverse perspectives, interests, and life experiences.

Disabled people burden society.

Disabled people positively contribute to society as active citizens, employees, parents, and community members.

Disabilities define individuals.

Disability is one aspect of identity, not the entirety of a person. Disabled people have multidimensional self-concepts.

Fulfilling relationships are unachievable for disabled people.

Disabled people have meaningful personal and family relationships like anyone else.

Disabled people prefer to associate with “their own kind.”

People with disabilities have diverse interests and relationships like anyone else.

It’s impossible to be truly happy if you are disabled.

Disability correlates little with life satisfaction. Disabled people are as happy as the general population.

Disabled people are a drain on the economy.

Employed disabled people pay taxes and contribute to the economy. Reasonable accommodations have low costs that yield benefits.

Disabled People are a drain on healthcare and the NHS.

Chronic conditions and disability account for a small part of overall healthcare spending. Investment enables societal participation.

All disabled people are very brave

Living with disability simply requires adapting, not inherent heroism.

If you are disabled you will use a wheelchair.

Wheelchairs enable mobility for varied reasons, not only illness. Not all disabled people have mobility issues

If you use a wheelchair it confines your freedom

Wheelchairs provide freedom and independence to fully participate in communities.

Children should not ask about disability

Curiosity presents opportunities to educate and build disability awareness. However adults should avoid asking intrusive questions, they should know better!

Disabled People live totally different lives to other people.

Aside from disability-specific needs, daily life is largely similar to the general population.

It’s fine to use a disabled parking space for a few minutes if you are not disabled

Misuse of accessible parking causes substantial inconvenience even for brief stops. Some people have one opportunity to get out, if you are in their parking space they have to return home.

It’s not up to me to make allowances for them, it’s up to “XYZ”

Barrier removal is a collective responsibility. Everyone plays a role in identifying and dismantling disability barriers through awareness and advocacy.

You can tell from looking at someone if they are disabled

Not all disabilities are visible. Many people live with invisible conditions such as chronic pain, mental health disorders, and neurological differences. Recognising this helps avoid assumptions about who is and isn’t disabled based on appearance.

Disabilities all originate from birth or an accident

Disabilities can arise from various circumstances, including genetic conditions, illness, and accidents, but also from age-related changes. This diversity challenges the misconception that disabilities are always congenital or the result of trauma.

Disabled people need to be ‘cured’ or their impairment removed to be able to live a good life.

A fulfilling life for disabled people doesn’t necessarily depend on finding a cure. Many find joy, success, and satisfaction within their lives as they are, emphasising adaptability and community rather than cure-centric views.

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