Like everybody else, people with disabilities can engage in a wide range of conversations, so long as all the parties involved behave appropriately and respectfully. The trouble is, that’s not always the case. That’s why jobpostingsasked me to find out exactly what does and doesn’t go over well at school and in the workplace, based on my interviews with people who’ve heard it all. Feel free to clip this article out and hand it to the next person who fumbles what could otherwise be a pleasant and fruitful exchange...
First things first: respect is the key to any conversation, and doubly so when asking a co-worker or friend about the challenges they deal with. Questions that feel positive and constructive give the person being spoken to a chance to feel like they can help raise awareness and understanding. “I don’t mind when people ask me about how I ended up in the wheelchair. It’s a chance for me to warn about the dangers of drinking and driving,” says Donna Ryder, a student in the social work program at Ryerson University.
Even so, answering the same question over and over can be exhausting at times, points out Michael Bach, director of diversity for KPMG, who nevertheless appreciates the good intentions of questioners. “Sometimes I get tired of coming out over and over again, sometimes I’d like to just put up a sign with all my information, but you can’t expect people to have the knowledge of every single problem. Answering is an opportunity to educate people.”
“I tell people they’re not asking prying questions, they’re educating themselves,” says elementary school teacher Freesia Jamin. “And you can help get rid of that stigma (by answering).”
The flipside of questions and comments that help build are ones that tear down. Without realizing it, some people use a condescending tone or insist on giving help whether it’s asked for or not. Those behaviours make people with disabilities feel like they are being viewed first as disabled and only secondly as a person.
“There are comments that can undermine you as a human being,” says Jamin.
“A lot of people seem to think that a person with a disability can’t do anything, and they intrude on their personal space,” adds Ryder, who has actually had to discourage people from grabbing the joystick on her motorized wheelchair to “help her move along.”
“We’ve got big mouths, we’ll let you know when and if we need help,” says Frank Nyitray, an image arts student at Ryerson. “Don’t treat me like a two-year-old.”
No one wants to be patronized and no one wants to be treated like a child. So avoid comments like 'Oh, you look so normal, I didn’t think you were disabled,' and cheap jokes to people using wheelchairs like 'Don’t drive too fast – you’re going to get a ticket.'
Offering help to people with disabilities requires no more than basic consideration. 'If you want any help, just let me know' shows support, while 'You need my help!' is a flat statement that only asserts superiority.
The way you refer to someone plays a large part in establishing how you view them. “Put the person first, not the disability. It’s a person who uses crutches, a person in a wheelchair,” says Nyitray.
“I wish more people would ask me how I prefer to be addressed,” says Ryder. “I really resent the ‘disabled’ label. I hate being called ‘disabled people’. I’m not broken.”
The difference between noting someone is a person with a disability, and calling them a ‘disabled person’ is the difference between referring to a friend with an extra challenge and a disability with a person hanging off it.
So how do people with disabilities prefer to be addressed?
“My name is Frank. Call me Frank,” says Nyitray. jp