Probably everyone who lives with a disability could reel off a number of stories describing different reactions others without disabilities have to their disabilities. In some cases, those responses are little more than annoyances. Other times they are ultimately humorous or at least amusing. Sometimes people respond as if even the most visible disability doesn’t exist. In some situations others’ responses have more dire consequences and require direct advocacy to ensure one’s civil rights.
Every time this type of situation occurs, the individual who has the disability has a choice of how to react. Since the result of others’ responses or reactions to disability is different in every situation, I don’t think there is a “proper” or “appropriate” way to handle it. However, in almost all situations, the individual with a disability is provided an opportunity to educate the other individual.
Below are examples of situations people with disabilities may have experienced with possible responses:
1. Knowledge is power
Anybody with any type of disability has probably experienced some threat to his or her civil rights. A perfect example is when an individual with a service dog is told that “pets are not allowed,” in a specific location. For example, an individual with a service dog is told by a restaurant host that he can’t have his dog in the restaurant.
The best reaction to nip this in the bud is for the service dog owner to know the law, cite the law, and clearly inform the host of his legal rights. He could say, “According to Title III of the ADA, Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, my service dog is legally allowed in all places of public accommodation.” If the host claims that local or state health codes prohibit animals, the service dog owner can then inform the host that the law he cited supersedes state codes. If the host pushes the issue further, asks for certification or asks about the owner’s disability, he can clarify that proof of certification is not legally required and that the host cannot legally ask about his disability.
Providing facts and citing specifically where they come from often disarms people who might simply be ignorant about a specific disability issue. In some situations, further action may be required to advocate for one’s civil rights, but complete knowledge about those civil rights is a good place to start.
2. Just say no
Sometimes people without disabilities have a hard time not helping an individual with a disability. In some situations, even after the individual with a disability refuses help when offered, the person who offered it helps anyway. An example is when someone offers to push for a wheelchair user (power or manual). The wheelchair user denies the help, but the other individual helps anyway. Another example is when someone offers to carry a backpack for an individual with a disability who is already carrying it. The person with the disability refuses the help, but the individual offering helps anyway.
It’s hard not to respond to situations like this without boldly stating that a person’s help is not wanted, but the best reaction might be for the individual with a disability to explain that they are exercising independence. The person offering help is most likely trying to be considerate and might not have thought through the situation fully. The best response is anything that doesn’t offend that person for having tried to do what he or she thinks is helpful.
3. Friendly order
One common response to an individual’s visible disability is to talk to the individual’s companion rather than directly to the individual. For example, a guy using a wheelchair goes into a restaurant with a friend, is shown to a table, reviews the menu, and decides what he wants to order. The waitress comes to take orders, looks directly at the wheelchair user’s companion and asks, “What would he like to order?” indicating toward the guy using the wheelchair.
Maybe the greatest response is for the wheelchair user to behave exactly as the waitress did. Rather than verbally correcting or ordering directly to her, he should place his order directly through the companion by saying, “Tell her I would like to order…” and naming what he wants. That reaction makes a potentially frustrating situation humorous while also making a pretty direct statement to the waitress about her behavior.
4. Act your age
A common mistake people make when talking to an individual with a disability is talking to him or her like they would a child, regardless of the individual’s obvious age. A young adult with a visible physical disability who actually had facial hair described a situation in which a woman in an art shop continually spoke to him like he was a child — in a high tone of voice and physically bent over slightly.
Although this reaction can really only be described as patronizing, which is almost unavoidably frustrating, maybe the best reaction is just to ask the individual to stop this type of behavior. Simply stating, “Please don’t talk to me like I’m a child,” makes the person aware of her actions and indicates what is preferred. In this specific example, I think an added touch would be for the individual to scratch his beard while making that statement.
5. Loud talker
Another common response to many types of disabilities is for an individual to raise his or her voice as if the presence of any disability affects the individual’s ability to hear. An example is when someone with a communication disability verbally communicates with a department store worker who then responds in an extra loud voice and tone.
Probably the quickest way to resolve this situation and prevent it from continuing is for the individual to simply tell the employee that his communication difficulty doesn’t affect his ability to hear. Hopefully just stating it as clearly as possible prevents the employee from continuing to talk loudly, which can be increasingly frustrating to the individual with a disability and make the loud talker feel silly.
6. Nice to meet you
Sometimes people fail to respond or react to even the most visible disabilities as if they don’t exist. Sometimes it even catches an individual with a disability off guard to realize that another individual might not recognize limitations posed by a disability. A common example is when someone whose arm has been amputated or has limited function meets an individual who extends his hand to shake the hand that is not there or has obvious limited function. Being that I can’t move my arms, my favorite example like this is when my dentist has said, “raise your arm if you feel pain” when working on my teeth.
There are many ways to respond to these behaviors, but it is best to recognize it for what it is – the individual is being treated as an individual. Not as a disabled individual. In these examples, the individual without the disability is acting as he or she would to anybody else. That type of behavior should be accepted as a compliment since the person without the disability is obviously looking past it. A response might even be, “thanks, but I’m unable to shake your hand.”
Chris Clasby lives in Missoula, Mont. He is known for his advocacy for people with disabilities. He is an avid hunter and fisherman, and much of his work has centered on helping people with disabilities access the outdoors.