7 Things to Remember When You're Around a Disabled Person

I know this subject matter is a little different today, but bear with, okay guys? This post is important - and I wanted to write it.

7 Things to Remember When You're Around A Disabled Person
I fully believe that ableism (the discrimination or mistreatment of disabled people) is more difficult to deal with than racism, or sexism, or homophobia or any of that over rubbish. I guess that, as a fully licensed card-owning, badge-wearing Disabled Person, you're going to listen to me when I say that. Hopefully, anyway. This is important.

It's a difficult issue because, however hard you try, you can't fix it the same way as the others. Sexism can be stopped by treating both genders in the same way. Racism folds in on itself as soon as you ignore the colour of a person's skin. Let a person have the same rights no matter what their sexuality, then the problem is solved.

But if you refuse to give a disabled person a wheelchair, or a hearing aid, or an assistance dog in the name of treating them the same way as a able-bodied (non-disabled) person? That problem has not been solved. And you're probably going to come off as a massive pooface.

The trick is learning how to give disabled people what they need without pandering to us, or misleading us, or giving us advantages we don't deserve. (Seriously, this last one doesn't help anyone. If I get something I might not need, my classmates get bitter, I feel guilty, and the whole situation is just royally unfair on all sides.) It's a tough balance to strike, but these seven things should help you in everyday situations.

#1 - We're normal humans!

That can tell you many things.

Firstly, the glorious Penny (I'm a bit of a Big Bang Theory nerd) is unfortunately wrong on this occasion. Lots of handicapped people are nice, sure, but some are mean. Some are shy, some are confident. Some are introverted, some are extroverted. Able-bodied people don't have hive minds, so neither do we. This also means that, if you know and care for one disabled person, you can't necessarily care for all disabled people the same way. Some might need you to interact with them in different ways because of different needs, but often it's because of different preferences. I might have practically the same impairment as another person at my school, but just because I'm okay with you pushing my wheelchair doesn't mean they are.

Secondly, it means that you shouldn't be scared of someone because they have a physical or mental difficulty. It doesn't make them an alien. If someone's wearing a t-shirt with a cool quote on it, you'd usually go up and talk to them about it, right? (Assuming you're the kind of person that does that.) Just because the person wearing that t-shirt is disabled shouldn't stop you doing that.

Being disabled doesn't make us incapable of friendship or even - shock horror - romantic love. See the person, not the disability. That's rule number one.

#2 - Be careful with the word "Inspiration"

Continuing with the t-shirt analogy, there is one sentence I would advise you (or SCREAM AT YOU) not to let pass your lips when you've finished talking about that cool quote.

Please don't tell the person you're talking to that they're an inspiration.

Well, you can if you've been admiring their career from afar for years and want to be like them. As long as they haven't inspired you by existing as a disabled person, it'll be fine. But please don't tell any and every handicapped human you see that they are an inspiration. For what? Getting out of bed in the morning? Managing to make their way down the street without breaking down into tears?

If someone called you an inspiration for those things, I'm guessing you wouldn't be happy. You'd probably be pretty mad at them for implying that you were almost too fragile to do anything. I get that you're trying to give a compliment, but just be careful. It's not like you want to end up insulting someone by accident instead.

#3 - We know what help we need 
Festival organisers (I'm just putting it out there) this usually means a working disabled Portaloo. Take notes from Hay Festival, okay?

If you want to be a nice person and do a good deed, great. You're allowed to do good things because they help people and generally make the world a tiny bit better. But giving a disabled person help they don't need isn't actually help: it's annoying, and can sometimes make a person's day harder or more dangerous.

It's okay though, because we know the help we need! If you want to offer help, go ahead and ask if we need it. Here's an example (it's pretty simple, I know, but you'd be suprised how many people deviate from this script so much it might as well not exist):

Person Helping: Hi, do you need a hand with that?
Notice that the person does not reach out to help immediately. They give me a chance to reply.
Me: I'm okay. Thanks for offering though!
Person Helping: Oh, cool. Have a good day.
Notice that the person does not pretend I just said yes or ask me again, as if that can't have been the answer I wanted to give. They just trust that I know what help I need, and I'm entitled to say no.

If you've made this mistake before, don't worry. I understand you were trying to make things easier for whoever you spoke to. That said, it can be embarrassing to keep denying help, and I've even heard stories of people tipped out of wheelchairs when people insisted on pushing them, or endangered by being led across a road without their stick or guide dog.

Just ask, okay?

Side Note - If you feel compelled to ask a stranger if they need help IN THE TOILET (this has actually happened to me, guys) you probably don't have to go through this script. Would you go about your life knowing you'd have to rely on random people off the street to urinate?

#4 - Words hurt as much as actions

One of the sad truths of our society is that ableist slurs have become part of some people's everyday language, to the point where - sometimes - they don't even know that those words can be offensive. The amount of times I've heard someone at school or in the street throw the word spastic around actually makes me cringe. The bottom line is that an offensive word doesn't have to be directed at you to be offensive. No-one's ever actually called me a spaz, but that doesn't stop me hating them a tiny bit when I hear it come out of their mouth.

I don't have much more to say about this TBH. Just consider it today's friendly reminder to try and remove offensive words from your vocabulary, and if you hear someone you know say something off . . . the best course of action is to gently remind them it can be hurtful. Chances are they won't even have made the connection or thought about it.

#5 - We don't owe you any explanations

I completely understand the natural curiousity that surrounds disability. If you're not used to something, you instinctively want to find out more about it - and that's fine. It's good that conversations around the issue keep happening, because let's face it: those conversations are the only thing that could one day stop it from being an issue.

The thing is that it's not the responsibility of every disabled person you pass on the street to educate you. Being disabled doesn't immediately make us disability rights activists who will campaign and explain things to you at the drop of a hat. And, yes, there are some people (me included) who will be absolutely happy to tell you why they're disabled, or a bit about the way they're medically treated or even how they think their disability affects their everyday life, but a lot of people won't want to answer those questions, and that's perfectly fine too. Maybe it's too painful or embarrassing for them, or they're not in the right mood or they just don't have the time. (Someone I know once had to spend forty minutes explaining ONE ASPECT of his - admittedly rather complex - disability to a girl in our class.)

Because disability is such an obvious part of many people's lives, it can be easy to forget how personal a topic it really is, and how annoying it can be if a perfect stranger wants to ask you such a personal question. I still think it's okay to ask someone about their disability, but you have to go about it carefully. It shouldn't be the first thing that comes out of your mouth when you meet them, and you should never act as if you're entitled to an answer. Prefacing your question with the words "I get that you might not want to talk about this" or "it's okay if you don't want to answer this" can go a long way.

#6 - Not all disabilities are visible.

This means two things. Firstly, do not utter the sentence "can you stand then?" when someone gets up out of a wheelchair. The fact they are in the process of standing kind of answers your question, and besides . . . I've been reliably informed that hearing that over and over (and believe me, it's not just one person that says it) is more than a little bit annoying.

The second - and more important thing - is that you should never ever EVER accuse someone of faking or overplaying their disability. Just because you've seen them walk a few steps one time doesn't mean they don't still need the wheelchair. Just because they can see light difference or tiny details or whatever doesn't mean they're not legally blind. Even if someone looks completely and totally able-bodied, they could have any number of conditions that means they need to use an accessible toilet or a lift. By turning your nose up at someone who doesn't "seem" disabled, 999 times out of 1000 you're just making another person - possibly someone vulnerable - feel horrible.

#7 - Don't get hung up on everything I just said.

What I mean here is don't sweat the small stuff. (See, the pancakes are grinning at you to make sure you're okay!) Yes, I would avoid making fun of your new colleague's limp and calling them a spaz, but if you struggle to speak to them because you're so worried about saying or doing something wrong, that isn't going to create a positive relationship. If you realise that you've just asked a deaf person if they "heard" the news or a blind person if they "saw" Top Gear last night . . .

I'd just carry on the conversation. Apologising makes the situation more awkward (unless they're the one that brings it up) and chances are they haven't even noticed. I tell people I was "walking" down the corridor or "standing" in a room the whole time: it's a figure of speech, not an obligatorily accurate statement.

Basically, I get that interacting with disabled people can feel difficult when you're not used to it, but it shouldn't really have to. Just try not to make it a big deal, and you can't go far wrong.

In the comments: Are there any questions you want to ask about this post and disability in general? Did I write it properly? Is there anything you want to add?
Next PostNewer Post Previous PostOlder Post Home


  1. YES. YES. YES. YES. This is something incredibly close to my heart too—I'm actually doing my Honours thesis on disability in Lit next year because it's so important to me. I love every point you've made here. My disability isn't necessarily noticeable, and that means I've put up with dirty looks from people for parking in disabled stops since I was a kid.

    Anyway, I really liked this post, Lara. I don't think there's enough talk about disability around!

    1. That sounds like the world's most brilliant topic for an honours thesis (just going to put it out there) and I bet it'll be even better because you find it so important. SO YES TO THAT.

      It's so annoying that so many people feel welcome to judge someone in a disabled stop or loo: maybe if we keep going on about it on the internet, they won't anymore? Fingers crossed.

      I'm really glad you liked it. Thanks for the beautiful comment, too! It made my day at 10:45 AM, so I must be doing something right.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this post! I'm not in any way disabled, but I always appreciate it when I get a chance to educate myself. I struggle with starting conversations in general with things I'm not personally familiar with, because I never want to get anything wrong, and sometimes people aren't as understanding as you are that I'm learning. I'd feel horrible if I offended someone, so posts like these help me to go out into the world a little more confident about knowing how to handle what could be potentially awkward situations. Thank you!

    1. Aww - Kate! Thanks for your lovely comment: it means a lot that not just people directly affected by disability can read posts like this and not be bored out of their minds or confused. I'm glad I could be of assistance.

      (I struggle with starting conversations too, to be honest, so no need to feel left out! There's a big difference between being wary of approaching a disabled person and just being a shy person about people in general.)

  3. oh my gosh, I love this. your words are so true, and people definitely need to hear these thoughts. I wouldn't consider myself disabled, but I have several chronic illnesses, so as I was reading this I was nodding and going "Mmhmm, yup, TRUTH." especially the not all conditions are visible one. I hate getting asked "...but are you really sick?" and I can't imagine what it's like for someone who is actually disabled to get asked the same sort of questions. *sighs* thank you for spelling these things out, because I know I forget how important it is to remember several these--and I'm sure others do as well.

    thank you for stopping by my blog! <3

    1. Sorry it took so long for me to reply to your comment, Ely! It's been crazy these last few days in Lara-world.

      Urgh. "But are you really sick?" is honestly one of the worst sentences to hear in this language, along with "Well you obviously won't be able to do that" and "sorry, we've run out of ice-cream". It's sucky that you get asked it at all, especially often. And that is one of the things I wish to change *nods solemnly*

      I'm really, really glad you liked this post, and thank you for reading and commenting! It really means a lot to me.


Thank you for commenting! ;-D

Follow Me! I Know the Way!