Interacting with disabled people: what’s the right way?

What’s the right way of interacting with disabled people? How to talk to them? The answer to these questions may seem obvious, but several (both personal and not) experiences make me remember that it isn’t that expected, after all…

I’m taking the cue from a scene I saw yesterday. Two adults, in the waiting room of a rehabilitation unit: an “able-bodied” woman and a man with a severe disability due to a stroke.  The “able-bodied” woman, mother of another patient, talks to the disabled man (who, in addition to using a wheelchair, is also aphasic, therefore can hardly articulate meaningful words, but is perfectly alert and aware of himself and others), using words and a tone of voice that would have been more suitable for a dialogue with a baby rather than an adult, as is the person in front of her, without forgetting to tenderly tickle his head, while they talk. As the man goes away, the woman starts talking endlessly to me (I was waiting to start my session as well): “How sweet is Charles (it’s a fancy name, of course!), isn’t he?”. I hold my tongue not to answer impolitely: after all, she is a kind woman, who has spoken in good faith. Before she’s able to keep on talking, my physiotherapist calls me, and I mentally thank him…


Would I have had enough time and the chance to leisurely answer, here is what I would have said. No, my kind lady, I don’t think that “Charles” is sweet. I don’t think he wants to appear like this, too, when he tries to chat with other people. He is an adult man who, after a perfectly normal life, by chance, ended up to fully depend on others, without being able to speak correctly to express his feeling and needs, if not at the cost of a huge effort (and a lot of discouragement, seeing the confused look of who isn’t used to deal with an aphasic individual). I don’t think that “Charles” (or any other disabled person, starting from myself) is “sweet” or must be necessarily called this way. Not because we’re ugly, dirty and evil (sometimes, we’re that way too, as everybody else, after all). Simply, because we aren’t puppies, nor cuddly toys, but people.

How many of you would talk to an “able-bodied” adult acquaintance as if he was a 2 years old baby, tickling his head and calling him “sweet” while talking about him with others? Nobody, I’d say. So, why would you feel to be entitled to do it with a disabled person? Why can’t you simply talk to her as she is, that is an adult in sound mind, even though she has movement (or other, based on her specific disability) issues?

interacting with disabled people

Even though you’ve your heart in the right place, you’d better remember that this way of interacting with disabled people is as wrong as discriminating and fooling them (even though, apparently, it does no harm, but the opposite!). It’s just like, somehow, refusing to recognize to those people the same dignity as others, simply due to a more or less temporary “diversity” condition.  Similarly, it terribly hurts hearing others saying (with a smile on their lips and sincere admiration): “Well done! Despite your disability, you’re very capable!”. What’s strange about that? Why do you always and forever need to emphasize that “despite”? Have you ever told someone who’s tall, short, fat, slim, dark or blond haired that, “despite that”, he is very capable?  What has somebody’s success (and failure) at school, work or in any other field to do with a physical trait of his?

Maybe a disabled person, during her life, had to show her personality more than others, to face daily challenges and reach her goals. But who says that, for that reason, she thinks to be (or wants to be seen as) “super” and not, simply, just like anyone else?

Then, here we are. If you ask me what is, in my opinion, the right way to interact with disabled people and, specifically, with me, my answer is: treat me like a person, the rest follows.

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