3 Well-Meaning Habits That Frustrate People With Disabilities
One of the most obvious goals of having better interactions with people with disabilities is to avoid unnecessarily annoying them.
But that’s not always as simple as making sure you have good motives and rejecting open bullying. One of the signature qualities of everyday ableism is that a lot of it comes from positive intentions. Things that sincerely feel good and right to say and do for people with disabilities are often not that helpful. And if well-intentioned missteps are not always hurtful exactly, they can be extremely irritating. This is especially so when the same types of incidents accumulate over years of life with disabilities.
There can be no definitive list of "disability don'ts." But here are three of the most common things non-disabled people say and do, with the best intentions, that tend to exhaust and exasperate people with disabilities.
1. Minimizing disability
"I don't think of you as disabled."
"Everyone has some kind of disability."
"But your mind works just fine."
Non-disabled people will say things like this almost on impulse, maybe be cause they have heard others say things like this before and they don’t know what else to say. And they seem positive. You tell the disabled person that their disabilities aren't the only thing you see. You reassure them that their particular disabilities aren't that noticeable. You suggest that though they technically do have a disability, they aren't like those other more severely disabled people whose lives are presumably more limited and sad.
But when you do have a disability that you can't ignore, it doesn't help for others to ignore or overlook it. These kinds of remarks, that seem supportive to a non-disabled person, in real life tend to invalidate any of the actual hardships you experience. Plus, it’s personally awkward and problematic to compare one disabled person favorably to other disabled people, as if their disabilities are somehow truly intolerable. Perceptions of disabled people in general can't ever be separated from how any particular disabled person is perceived. And many disabled people don’t take kindly at all to people trying to make them feel better by throwing other disabled people under the bus.
What should you say instead? First of all, don't try so hard to respond to a disabled person on the topic of disability with some kind of reassurance or positive spin. If a reply is required, make it neutral, matter-of-fact. And remember that quite often, not direct comment on a person’s disability is even necessary. You can always just say nothing.
2. Misplaced equivalence
"I broke my leg once and had to use a wheelchair for three months."
“Sometimes I feel a bit blue too.”
“I’m gay so I understand what it’s like to be discriminated against.”
It can be very tempting, but it’s usually a bad idea to make such direct comparisons between being a disabled person experiencing ableism, and being part of another marginalized community that encounters other kinds of prejudice. Comparisons in both directions are sketchy at best. Being Black or gay isn't "exactly" or even "a lot" like being disabled. And being disabled isn't "exactly" or even "a lot" like being gay or Black.
Again, the motive for such comparisons isn’t always bad. At best, they come from a heartfelt desire to establish connection, empathy, and common experience. It’s usually meant to be unifying. It may also be a sincere attempt to reach out personally, and say to a disabled person, "You're not alone. I understand.”
But comparisons like this tend to come across as simplistic and presumptuous – sometimes even insulting. Such equivalencies may seem valid and insightful, but more often than not are flawed or false. There is a fine line between establishing empathy and virtue signaling. Diverting focus from the disabled person onto yourself is often narcissistic and just plain rude. It’s good for people from different marginalized communities to work together. But it does everyone a disservice to claim superficial, exaggerated kinships between them – or to assert more understanding of one oppressed group than you can actually have, just because you also experience some kind of hardship, disadvantage, or oppression.
It’s important not to confuse understanding connections between people and communities, with flattening the distinctions between them. Asserting that you understand more than you do doesn't help forge a stronger connection. Instead, just listen to what a disabled person is telling you and absorb it. You don't always have to comment. You can have empathy for a disabled person and be a good ally without trying to claim you are "one of them." And don't let yourself make a situation all about you and your experience, when it's entirely inappropriate to do so.
3. Aggressive assistance
Offering to help a disabled person is one thing. Insisting on helping is quite another. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a disabled person who hasn’t been on the receiving end of unwanted or grossly mishandled “help.”
The classic example is a sighted person, fired up to "do a good deed for the day," not just offering to help a blind person cross the street, but practically dragging them across against their will. Things like this also happen to wheelchair users, who are sometimes suddenly moved around by others without consultation, like a footstool that's in the way.
We are all brought up to some extent to be helpful to others. And people with very noticeable disabilities can seem to offer opportunities to do simple, straightforward good. Some people are also genuinely moved when they see a disabled person who seems to them to be struggling. There's an emotional impulse to jump in and reduce perceived suffering.
Despite any good intentions, for actual disabled people imposed “help” is more than irritating. It's practically assault to force physical assistance on someone who doesn’t want it. And it can be dangerous if you don't know what you are doing, or refuse to listen to an otherwise receptive disabled person's directions on how to help.
Meanwhile, much of some non-disabled people’s passion to “save the day” for disabled people is based on ableist assumptions. It assumes that disabled people are helpless and pitiful. Or worse, that disabled people who say no to help are either confused or too stubborn to recognize their own need and accept help. Either way, it robs disabled people of agency, which is as annoying and harmful as any physical barrier.
So, offer to help if you want to and are actually capable of doing so safely and appropriately. Listen to what the disabled person says, respect their decision, and follow their directions. Help the way the disabled person wants, even if it’s not what you had in mind. And don't feel bad if you aren't in the mood to help right then, or if you don't feel comfortable with what would be required. Chances are pretty good that the disabled person isn't struggling as much as you think, and will probably be fine — especially if they aren’t even asking for help.
Not every disabled person is irritated by these things in every situation. Disabled people don't all think or behave alike. But almost no disabled person will feel upset or neglected if you don't do these well-intended but misguided things.
I am a freelance writer with lifelong disabilities and 22 years experience as a service provider and executive in nonprofit disability services and advocacy. I write about disability practices, policy, politics and culture. I also co-coordinate #CripTheVote, a Twitter-based discussion of disability issues and electoral politics. I have a B.A. in history from Dartmouth College, and an M.A. in Rhetoric and Communication Studies from the University of Virginia.