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October 15, 2021

Stuff You Shouldn’t Say To Disabled People

October, in addition to being the much-loved “spooky season,” it is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It’s a time every year when we celebrate the accomplishments of disabled people in the world of work, and focus attention on the many barriers disabled people still face in the job market. But before digging deep on disability employment […]

October, in addition to being the much-loved “spooky season,” it is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It’s a time every year when we celebrate the accomplishments of disabled people in the world of work, and focus attention on the many barriers disabled people still face in the job market.

But before digging deep on disability employment figures, strategies, and workplace policies, it’s a good idea to revisit some of the basics. And a good place to start is how nondisabled people can avoid giving unnecessary offense to people with disabilities. This may seem like a minor issue compared with larger structural barriers. But the best workplace disability policies and practices can be undone in a moment by thoughtless, corrosive remarks from coworkers.

These can contribute to interpersonal conflict and burnout that disproportionately affects disabled workers. Conversely, disabled people often find that structural discrimination and inaccessibility are easier to cope with if they feel accepted and understood by supportive, sensitive colleagues. At the most simple level, it’s easier for disabled people to go to work every day if they feel confident that they won’t be subjected to foolish, ableist remarks.

Anyone can argue, (and some people just love to argue), that nearly any remark is somehow acceptable –– well meant perhaps, logically valid, or at least worthy of being tolerated as free speech. But in a more practical and humane sense, there are some things people continue to say to disabled people that they quite simply shouldn’t. For one thing, they rarely convey the intended message. For another, they provoke personal irritation and anger without the redeeming quality of representing important or valuable points of view. They are pointlessly provocative, upsetting for no good reason.

Here are five things disabled people hear all the time, and very much wish we wouldn’t. They do harm, and contribute nothing. Nobody should say them. 

1. “I can’t imagine [insert specific disability],” or, “I’d rather be dead.”

What it’s intended to express:

“You’re amazing! I could never handle your disability nearly as well as you do.”

What disabled people hear:

“Your life is horrifying to me,” or, “It would be understandable if you would rather be dead.”

It’s important to note that while this kind of remark is usually meant well, there are some people who say things like this and do not mean it in a positive way. They fully intend to express that they believe certain disabled people should die, or should never have lived.

Why you shouldn’t say it:

Most disabled people don’t need others to remind them of the difficulty of having disabilities. We also don’t enjoy being told that our lives are unimaginable. It’s especially galling when it comes from people we consider friends –– people we previously thought understood us.

Also, the link to suicide is not an exaggeration, especially since legalization of “assisted suicide” is an active political issue which directly impacts people with some disabilities.

2. “She’s in heaven now, so she can walk again,” or , “There are no wheelchairs in heaven.”

What it’s supposed to express:

“A disabled person I love has died, and I’m taking comfort in the thought that they are happier and free of hardships where they are now.”

What disabled people hear:

“A disabled person can only ever be their true, fulfilled self if their disabilities disappear,” or, “I’ve been grieving their disability for years, but now it’s finally over.”

Why you shouldn’t say it:

Aside from the highly questionable theology, it’s just a terrible, insensitive thing to say in the presence of a living disabled person. It undermines so much of the self-acceptance and pride we are continually trying to build, which in some cases is essential for our survival. Statements like this reinforce the idea that no matter how much a disabled person accomplishes, their life with a disability can never be as good as their eventual death.

This sentiment does nothing for any disabled person. It’s entirely meant to be a comfort to non-disabled people. And in comforting them it underscores and validates their fundamental non-acceptance of disability –– and implies that as disabled people, we should feel the same.

3. “Your legs don’t work, but there’s nothing wrong with your mind.”

What it’s supposed to express:

“I realize that you are someone worth talking to and getting to know as an equal. I recognize your talent and intelligence.”

What disabled people hear:

“Physically disabled people aren’t pitiable, but intellectually disabled people really are,” or, “Intellectual disabilities are much worse than physical ones.”

Why you shouldn’t say it:

This formulation is usually meant to counter a specific and very common stereotype and social habit –– assuming that someone with visible physical disabilities is intellectually disabled as well. The problem is that it dodges the stereotype rather than dismantling it. It’s wrong to treat any adult like a five year old –– to disregard them, condescend to them, or high-handedly overrule them –– even if they do have an intellectual disability.

If you want to say that a particular disabled person strikes you as smart, capable, or talented, just say it. Don’t contrast them with other kinds of disabled people. Don’t uplift one disabled person by denigrating others.

Unfortunately, a lot of physically disabled people say this kind of thing too because they are so offended at being mislabeled and treated worse than they think they deserve to be. But in saying this they aren’t contending with their own prejudice. They are throwing intellectually and mentally disabled people “under the bus.” Thinking that the worst thing of all is to be mistaken for being intellectually or mentally disabled is as discriminatory and harmful as any other form of ableism, from any other source.

4. “I don’t think of you as disabled,” or, “I don’t even see your disability anymore.”

What it’s supposed to express:

“I see all of you, not just your disabilities,”

What disabled people hear:

“You’ve done a good job of hiding your upsetting disability and managing to avoid being a bother to others,” or, “I like you in spite of your unfortunate disability, which shows that I’m an especially good person!” or, “I might be unprepared and annoyed if your disability does become too obvious, or if you need accessibility or accommodations.”

Why you shouldn’t say it:

From the point of view of someone who has a very apparent disability, the idea that someone might forget that is ludicrous. It may even seem dishonest. Of course they see our disability? What are they trying to prove by saying otherwise?

Statements like this also imply that it’s up to disabled people to hide our disabilities, or make sure we don’t get in anyone’s way. We will be accepted and “seen” if we do our best to not remind others of our disabilities.

If you want to say that you’ve gotten to know a disabled person better and you like them, just say that. You don’t have to qualify it by suggesting that you’ve had to overlook something bad in order to appreciate them.

5. “Everyone has some kind of disability,” or, “Actually, there’s no such thing as a disability.”

What it’s supposed to express:

“Your disability isn’t a big deal,” or, “I don’t believe in disability as a meaningful social category,” or “I can relate to your disability because I have things I’m not good at too.”

What disabled people hear:

“Your problems aren’t so special or important,” or, “I have just as many challenges as you do,” or, “I really don’t understand your disability experience at all.”

Why you shouldn’t say it:

This kind of thing represents an interesting philosophical stance with some merit, at least in the abstract. Disability is in some ways an arbitrary way of categorizing people. Fundamentally, disability means less than the fuss we make over it.

But there are practical and social differences between disabilities and ordinary variations of appearance and ability. For someone with a significant disability, statements like this that blur the distinction between disabilities and just “traits” or “aptitudes” are likely to ring particularly false, maybe even disingenuous.

The fact is that disability does have everyday practical, social, and legal reality in ways that affect our lives. Wishing it away is rarely any help to anyone.

This is far from a complete list, bit people with disabilities hear these things like this all the time. They are clichés, but expressed as if they are brilliant and humane insights. They are usually meant well, but at best they are backhanded comments. It’s especially corrosive when they ring so false to actual disabled people.

And they are almost always unnecessary. If you’re struggling to come up with something acceptable to say about someone’s disability, remember you always have the option of not saying anything about it at all.

Article written by:  Orville Lynch, Jr.
Mr. Lynch, a member of the legendary two-time Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame Award winning Lynch Family. Mr. Lynch is a nationally recognized urban media executive with over 20+ years of diversity recruitment and serial entrepreneur with numerous multi-million dollar exits.
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