Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.
A Reddit discussion of common mistakes well-intentioned people make while trying to “help” people with disabilities shows they may do more harm than good, says the Huffington Post. Some so-called “helpful” behaviors can be insulting, disrespectful, and patronizing. As someone who has worked in the disability community for many years, I have recognized these and other behaviors that hurt more than they help.
1: Invasions of Personal Space
We all have personal space around us that should be respected. Able-bodied people should not touch people with disabilities unless invited to do so. Equipment such as wheelchairs and service dogs are also a part of that space.
Having someone come up behind a person sitting in a wheelchair and start pushing can be alarming and aggravating for the wheelchair user, especially if it is in the opposite direction that the disabled person is traveling. It is disorienting for blind people to have someone grab their arms and start guiding them somewhere that they may not want to go without being asked for assistance.
Solution: Respect their personal space by not touching them or their equipment. Wait for disabled people to ask for assistance before touching them, their service dogs, or their mobility aids.
2: Treating Disabled People as "Inspirational" or Helpless Objects of Pity
Some people think they are encouraging disabled people by putting them on a pedestal and telling them they are inspirational. Others feel that people with challenges are objects of pity who can’t achieve much without their help. If they do manage to do some things successfully without a lot of help, they are considered to be exceptions.
Unfortunately, the media promotes the idea that people with disabled people are extraordinary just because they have physical or cognitive challenges. The media runs a lot of “feel good” articles about people “overcoming” their conditions, succeeding “in spite of” their disabilities, or not allowing disability to “stop them” from achieving something.
Social media tends to spread these articles with comments such as:
- “When I look at this person’s challenges, I realize how good I have it.”
- “I thought I had it bad until I read this person’s story.”
- “When I see what this person does not have, I am thankful for what I have.”
- “Isn’t this awful?”
- “Poor thing!”
Solution: People with disabilities want to be treated as equals and live their lives in peace.
3: Asking Inappropriate Personal Questions
People can ask personal questions if disabled people indicate that they are open to them. However, if disabled people are not open, the people asking should accept a “no,” a negative response, or no answer.
Some people think they have the right to be nosey and mask this with an appearance of concern for disabled people. They ask questions that cross the line such as:
“How did you end up in a wheelchair?”
“When are you going to get better?”
“Do you have a good diet?”
“Have you tried … (yoga, certain therapies, etc.)?”
Some people ask questions they would never address to people who were not disabled.
Solution: It is up to the disabled whether they share their stories in their own time or address certain issues. We should respect their boundaries on possible discussion topics and back off if they seem evasive, change the subject, or tell us to back off
4: Talking Down to People With Disabilities
Some non-disabled people treat people like they are children or lesser beings. They yell at deaf people and distort their mouths, speaking in convoluted ways that are impossible to lipread. They exaggerate their voices and movements when talking to people with autism, making it impossible for autistic people to pick up social cues and understand them.
Sometimes a person with obvious physical or intellectual disabilities is out in public with a caregiver or personal support worker and the PSWs meet someone they know. In some cases, acquaintances conduct a direct conversation with the able-bodied person and refer to the disabled person in the third person. The able-bodied person may ask: “Is he able to walk?” “What does she like to eat?”
Solution: People should always converse with people with disabilities in a normal way. Sometimes, a third party may speak for someone who is non-verbal or difficult to understand. For example, if people with cerebral palsy have trouble speaking clearly, they may look to another person to repeat their comments. A deaf person may require a sign language interpreter to communicate.
All people, even those using others as communication supports, should be addressed directly in the first person. Individuals should not talk about them in the third person in their presence.
5: Making Inappropriate Comments and Suggestions
Able-bodied individuals may suggest ways that disabled people can improve their condition, even when the non-disabled do not know what they are talking about. Some inappropriate comments may be on their appearance (“You don’t look autistic”), abilities (“Have you tried to walk lately?”), or lifestyle (“You people date?”).
Solution: People often blurt out inappropriate comments because they feel uncomfortable and think they have to say something - anything - to break the tension. Sometimes it is better to say little or nothing at all.
6: Acting on the Assumption That Disabled People Are Not Capable
Disabled people might become frustrated and angry when people do things for them without asking them if they needed help. For example, amputees walking on prosthetic limbs may be able to walk well and only need to lean on a shoulder when navigating stairs. When people grab amputees' arms or wrap their arms around their waists, amputees would probably have more difficulty walking and navigating stairs than if they had been left alone.
Sometimes people become angry when disabled people exceed their expectations. For example, when wheelchair users show that they can stand and walk a few steps, some non-disabled people may accuse them of faking their disability.
They leave nasty notes scolding car owners who use handicapped parking spots after seeing owners getting out of their vehicles without difficulty. Non-disabled people may not realize that some people have invisible illnesses such as multiple sclerosis (MS). The effects of MS on their bodies can fluctuate from day to day. Sometimes a person with MS can walk normally, but at other times, needs to use a cane or a wheelchair. Other assumptions are that disabled people cannot be educated and trained, have romantic relationships, or have a job.
Solution: We should assume that the disabled person is capable of living a full life. They will ask for help if needed. They may do things differently, but things usually get done. For example, some people in wheelchairs use assistive devices such as metal rods with pincers that can reach food packages on high shelves.
People with disabilities do not want to be treated as “special,” “inspirational,” or helpless. They would like to be treated with the same respect as everyone else.
- Disabled People Reveal The Things Others Do That Really Don’t Help, Rachel Moss, Huffington Post
- Seven things you should stop saying and doing to disabled people, The Guardian, The Inequity Project
- Don't call me an inspiration: disabled people list the most annoying things able-bodied people do to try and help, Independent, Christopher Hooton
- 8 ‘Helpful’ Things That Don’t Really Help People With Disabilities, Yahoo Health
- 'Don'ts' aren't helping: here's five things you can say to someone with a disability, The Guardian, Robert Hoge
- How to treat people with illnesses and disabilities, Girlshealth.gov
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Carola Finch
Lanecia Smith from United States on November 03, 2017:
I worked with individuals with disabilities for about 6 years. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. You mentioned a lot of ways people with disabilities choose not to be treated. Oftentimes, I've heard a lot of them say how they wish people would respect their personal space and treat them like people. These are individuals who have minds, and think, and love, and have all types of feelings and desires. So treating them as if they were ordinary, rather than "special" would be doing a great service to them. Thanks for sharing!
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on October 04, 2017:
As I a breast cancer survivor, I get the inspiration thing all the time. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable. I do not want to be put on a pedestal or considered special just because I chose to fight for my life. I just want to be treated like everyone else.
I wrote an article that answers your question more fully than I could here at: https://discover.hubpages.com/health/Why-Many-Peop... .
It sounds like you really enjoy your work and bless you for that. I think that "inspiring" when it means encouraging and admiring people is fine.
Pathways thru life from Mid West on October 04, 2017:
I like being an inspiration to others. It is unfortunate, but the U.S is made up of so many labels. I work as a Job Coach for disabled clients. It is always a wonderful feeling to see them be successful. I feel many of my clients are an inspiration to conquer their challenges. Is that wrong?
Deborah Demander Reno from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD on October 02, 2017:
Thanks for pointing out these mistakes. It's easy to forget personal space, when meeting disabled people. I appreciate your insight.
Thanks for writing.
Richard Green from New Mexico on October 02, 2017:
What a useful article. These are the kind of things people don't like to talk about, so it is even more important that you wrote about it. Thanks and good work!