Top Ten Things Not to Say to Someone with a Disability

Today’s post is dedicated to all lovers of “what not to do” lists—and to every person or family member who lives with a disability and is weary of hearing the same old clueless, unhelpful comments.

  1. “You don’t look disabled.” There is an enormous range of disability types, and no universal standard for how anyone with disabilities should “look”: many disabilities show no outward signs at all. Saying “You don’t look it” is tantamount to calling someone deluded or dishonest.
  2. “All you have to do is [insert choice of not-so-helpful advice].” BridgingApps Digital Navigator Walter Prescher notes, “As a disabled Veteran with a variety of issues, I get this one on a regular basis, usually combined with ‘assurance’ that ‘It can’t really be that bad.’” Whether you know a great doctor, believe in faith healing, or have a friend who overcame “the same thing” by personal grit, chances are the person you’re addressing has heard of it before. And even if a problem is solvable, no one struggling with it appreciates implications that the solution is easy.
  3. “You poor thing, it must be awful to be blind/deaf/crippled.” Although it’s rarely expressed quite that bluntly, that’s what people hear if you talk in a patronizing tone, raise your voice (especially to someone whose disability is not hearing-related), or otherwise speak differently than you would to the average person on the street.
  4. “Could I try out your wheelchair/text-to-speech app/other assistive technology?” To some people, any new-to-them technology is a toy to be played with on the spot. To people who need technology to function with a disability, such an attitude is presumptive at best. Assistive technology is for all practical purposes an extension of the physical body, and should be treated as such—not as anything that can be temporarily given up on a second’s notice.
  5. “Oh, I know exactly how you feel.” No, you don’t, unless you’re sitting in the same support group with the same disability—and even then, any version of “exactly” should be used with caution. The worst version of this one is belittling a disability by comparing it to some superficially similar everyday problem: e.g., “I was crushed when my son didn’t make the first-string basketball team,” addressed to the parent of a child with severe physical and mental impairments.
  6. “Snap out of it” to someone with clinical depression or a similar disorder. You might as well say “Get up and walk” to someone in a wheelchair, so don’t try the first unless you can claim previous success with the second.
  7. “It could be worse” or “It won’t always be this bad” to someone still processing the initial diagnosis. This is usually heard as, “You’re making a big deal over nothing”—and a major upset to life and/or dreams is definitely not “nothing.” While it may well be true that the situation will get easier with time, no one wants to consider the future while the present is feeling overwhelming enough.
  8. “Tell me all about your disability.” More often expressed in shorthand—e.g., “What’s WRONG with you?”—and followed by additional questions if the first answer is brief. Whatever the approach, most people (1) resent being interrogated by strangers, (2) have things to do besides telling and retelling their life stories daily, and (3) would rather initiate the detailed explanations themselves.
  9. “You’re so brave/inspiring” to anyone with a disability who is going about the ordinary business of everyday life. Although intended as a compliment, it’s more likely to push stigma-connected buttons, triggering reactions along the lines of, “We don’t need compliments, we need better accessibility so we don’t have to be ‘brave’ to do everyday things.”
  10. “Let me help,” accompanied by action without waiting for an answer. Just because someone is in a wheelchair or moving slowly doesn’t mean they need or want help. If you offer to help and receive an affirmative response, give them time to tell you what to do and how: there’s nothing helpful about breaking an expensive piece of assistive technology due to a bad guess on how it should be handled.

For clarity on what actually does help:

  • Read additional BridgingApps blog posts (and keep watching for new ones: we post 3–5 a week, covering a vast range of topics).
  • See apps recommended for caregivers.
  • Visit the Disability:IN website for a great collection of resources on inclusiveness, etiquette, and treating others as they want to be treated. Disability:IN is a nonprofit working for large-scale disability inclusion in the business world.

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