Things that we should stop saying to people with disabilities & what to say instead

By Emily Linsky

Have you ever been in a situation where someone says something passively? Maybe your friend starts the conversation, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” I don’t know about you, but it’s difficult after a comment like that not to take whatever is coming the wrong way. For people with disabilities, many passive comments are heard daily that may be well-intended but just land wrong. If you have uttered some of the phrases below, I know it was likely well-intended. Regardless, there is no better time than the present to learn about another community’s needs. Being someone with a disability can be incredibly isolating. It can be exhausting to feel like you must protect yourself and your family from stigmatizing phrases while living your daily life. Take this opportunity to remind yourself or learn something new about an entire community of people.

“Here, let me help you with that!”

There’s no doubt in my mind that these comments are well-intended. A person’s wheelchair, cane, or other assistive device is part of their “bubble.” Disabled people with assistive devices have likely been using theirs for years, if not their whole lives. It can be like an extension of their own body. They know how to get around and get their needs met. It isn’t wrong to offer help; you don’t have to stop doing that. If they need help, they will ask for it, just like an able-bodied person asks for help.

“You’re so brave/resilient/strong”

This just isn’t the compliment you mean it to be. If I were out simply walking my dogs and someone called me brave and strong, that would be odd, right? Same idea when that phrase is mumbled to a person with a disability. Driving themselves, going to the store, and running errands are not brave, resilient, strong things. They are chores everyone does, even people with disabilities. Perhaps if the person is walking 50 dogs at once, that would invite a “strong” comment. Other than that, just smile and go about your day.

“Now that they are with God in heaven, they are completely healed and able to _

After someone with a disability dies, it is common to hear comments like, “Well, now they can walk, talk, see, run, etc.”. This can imply that people with disabilities cannot live a fulfilled life here on Earth unless they are able-bodied. Someone with a disability just means their body works differently. It’s not good or bad; it’s just a neutral fact. It just is. An able-bodied, neurotypical person can have an unfulfilling life, just like a disabled person. However, both can have an incredibly fulfilling life! The disability doesn’t get to decide that.

Avoid outdated terms

Handicapped, slow, and crippled are all examples of culturally insensitive, outdated, and inappropriate terms to use for a person with a disability. These words have had a place in medical fields for years. Thanks to a great deal of medical advancement, we know we can use other words to describe our peers with a disability. While they are viewed as appropriate at one time, these words carry a great deal of stigma, hurt, and offense. A disability does not equal defective or deformed. A person with a disability is a whole person worthy of the same respect everyone else gets.

Speak directly to them

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities, both children and adults, can voice their opinion and make decisions. Sometimes, communicating those needs may look or sound different than you are used to, but that doesn’t mean they cannot do so. If I were to go to a restaurant and the server only spoke to my partner about what I wanted to order, I would be incredibly frustrated and offended. In the same way, speaking to a person with a disability’s friends, family, or partners when it is a decision that they can communicate is likely frustrating and offensive. People will communicate when given a chance to. There’s no need to continue to silence their voice.

Adults with disabilities deserve to be treated and spoken to as adults

Don’t baby talk or speak overly loud and slow to someone with a disability. Automatically assuming that a person with a disability cannot hear or comprehend clearly is patronizing and embarrassing. If they need you to communicate differently, they can ask you to!

I am not an expert. I cannot speak for every member of every specific disability community. We talked about how all people with disabilities have a voice and choice, though! If you have questions about particular disabilities or ways to communicate, you can always ask. Another way to educate yourself is to search for their advocacy networks. For example, you can Google “Down Syndrome advocacy network,” and the National Down Syndrome Society will appear. You can do this for every disability for more information on supporting individuals and families and educational materials.

We all have traits that make us, us. For example, my characteristics include being a mid-20s cis- gender female. Disability, just like race, sexuality, gender, and age, is just another trait. Disability isn’t a bad word. It isn’t something to fear. Acknowledge everyone’s differences as you would acknowledge anyone else who presents with a different race, sexuality, gender, or age. While being a person with a disability can be an isolating experience, there are small changes you can make to help be supportive of them and their families.

About the Author: Emily Linsky is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist-Candidate. She is a disability rights advocate and has extensive experience working with those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Emily is training to become a play therapist and enjoys working with children, teenagers, families, parents, and co-parents.
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