Whenever you see the word “disability,” there’s a good chance you immediately think about someone in a wheelchair. However, disability is a much more complex condition than the wheelchair stereotype suggests. According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 56.7 million people in the United States who live with a disability. This number represents 19 percent of the population or nearly 1 in 5 Americans. People who have disabilities suffer from a variety of debilitating conditions beyond physical infirmity. Disability generally includes any kind of impairment which either limits or restricts a person’s capacity to perform routine activities with ease. For example, disability can include conditions such as visual impairment, hearing impairment, mental health issues, speech impediments, and so on.
Be an Ally
Depending on whether a disability is visible or easily recognizable, people who suffer from disability often feel pressure to hide their condition if they can get away with it, especially in the workplace. This is because disability tends to provoke inappropriate language or mistreatment from insensitive able-bodied people. Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act paved the way for fair treatment of the disabled, there is still a lot of societal ignorance about how to interact with the disabled respectfully. The bottom line is that people with disabilities are people. That means they deserve to be acknowledged as equals and treated with dignity regardless of what disabilities they may have.
Here are a few tips on how to socialize graciously when you encounter people with disabilities:
- Put Yourself in Their Shoes – The golden rule never fails – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you ever find yourself struggling over what to say or how to connect with a disabled person, imagine how you would want to be treated if you had that same disability, and extend the appropriate courtesy in kind. Relax, and remember that you’re dealing with a human being. Talk to the person, not their disability.
- Choose Your Words Carefully – Use neutral language when talking to, or about, people with disabilities. Only refer to their disability if it’s relevant to the conversation, and avoid characterizing their disability as a weakness. If you know a particular word or expression is considered controversial or demeaning to people with disabilities, then, by all means, eliminate that vocabulary from your speech.
- Ask First Before Offering Help – People with disabilities are often the targets of well-meaning good Samaritans who actually undermine dignity rather than provide beneficial assistance. Don’t automatically assume that a disabled person is vulnerable or helpless if you see them in a dilemma. If you’re compelled to offer assistance, confirm whether they actually need your help with a polite request first.
- No Pity Parties – People have a natural instinct to feel sympathy when they see others suffer. However, if this sympathy makes you show constant or disturbing amounts of pity, you’ll only end up belittling people with disabilities. Pity is insulting to any human being with self-respect, so remember not to assume the worst of people with disabilities.
Disability is not the same thing as inability. People with disabilities might do things at a different pace, or in a unique way, but they are still perfectly capable of accomplishing the same outcomes as able-bodied people. All it takes is a little accessibility and accommodation. If you ever have the opportunity to engage or work with the disabled, choose to focus on their abilities rather than disabilities. Practice the golden rule, and treat them in the exact same way you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes. The less you stigmatize disability in your own mind, the more opportunities you will have to form meaningful relationships with people of many backgrounds.