How do you feel when you spot a person with a disability? If you’re like most, you probably feel a complex rush of emotions. Out of compassion, you want to understand the person’s life and what it’s like to live without sight, hearing or full mobility. But out of ignorance or even fear, you rarely broach the awkward silence. To open the conversation with the 56.7 million Americans living with a disability, pull up a chair, look the person in the eye and read on to find out what the experts recommend saying and what’s better left unspoken.

What to Say

1. “Hey, did you see that movie?”

Some people avoid engaging in conversation with a person with a disability because they worry there’s just too many pitfalls. What if I accidentally ask a blind person if they see what I mean? What if I ask someone hard of hearing if they heard the latest news? While people who use one of these colloquialisms likely kick themselves as soon as the words leave their mouth, the person with a disability might not even notice. “Typically, an individual who is comfortable with his or her own disability is not offended by such phrases. I often say them myself, as it is just part of our vernacular,” says Anthony Stephens, director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind. Of course, there are exceptions, such as someone who has recently lost her sight or hearing might be sensitive. But above all, people with disabilities want to be treated like anyone else. Relax when you’re speaking, and generally don’t worry about this metaphorical language.

2. “Can I ask you what medical condition you have?”

A person’s disability is caused by a medical condition. That’s a reality most won’t shy away from and one that can guide your interaction. (Upon seeing someone in a wheelchair, many people wrongly assume that the person is totally incapacitated, and they start speaking slower or louder — despite a lack of evidence that the person’s hard of hearing or has cognitive disabilities.) After you’ve spoken about the medical condition, don’t ask for more information about daily challenges. Why? Not only could it seem like you’re prying, but also because many in the community believe that disabilities stem from society’s inability to adapt, rather than from any physical limitation. “It’s not that I can’t open the door,” says Ian Watlington, an advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network who has cerebral palsy, “it’s that the door is too heavy.” Don’t press further, unless you know the person well or he volunteers information, or otherwise you’ll reduce his life to “a set of symptoms,” Watlington adds.

3. “Would it be helpful if I carried this over for you?”

Grabbing a blind person’s arm may throw them off balance. Lifting someone’s wheelchair by the handles could tip them onto the floor. It may be hard to resist when it looks like a person with a disability is struggling, but jumping into someone’s personal space is a big no-no. They already developed a different — but no less effective — way of navigating the world. Always ask if your help is needed first, and don’t take offense if someone declines it. “We know when to ask for help. Just wait for us to speak up,” suggests Tiffiny Carlson, a Minnesota blogger whose spinal cord was injured in a driving accident as a teen. “How would you like it if someone barrel-rolled themselves into your personal space? You wouldn’t. The same goes for us.”

4. “Our building is accessible to all.”

At its most fundamental level, having a disability can make it physically challenging to get around. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a massive civil rights bill passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities in employment, access to public services, telecommunications and housing and other accommodations. The bill was the culmination of a decades-long campaign, which sought to show that people with disabilities could live independently as part of a community. “Like the African-Americans who sat in at segregated lunch counters and refused to move to the back of the bus, people with disabilities sat in federal buildings, obstructed the movement of inaccessible buses, and marched through the streets to protest injustice,” Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, writes in a history of the movement. ADA compliance is now widespread, but it’s always reassuring for a person with disabilities to feel welcomed (keep ramps unobstructed, trash bins out of aisles and display boards away from entrances), rather than being seen as a burden.

5. “You’re hired!”

While the ADA is responsible for revamped layouts of many workspaces, it hasn’t been nearly as effective at adding diversity to employment rosters. According to the 2010 Census, only 41 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities were employed, compared with 79 percent with no disability. Thanks to today’s technology, people with disabilities are usually able to work as effectively, if not more so, than any other applicant. Take Jerry Berrier, a blind person who was once ashamed that he couldn’t proofread his own memos at work and felt he wasn’t an asset. Once speech-to-text technology came online around 1985, his productivity soared. “People tend to expect very little of someone with disabilities. They just can’t imagine themselves being able to do what I’ve done, because they think of what would happen if they went blind right now. I’ve had 60 years of experience and a chance to get a lot of practice,” Berrier, who works at Perkins School for the Blind, says. “But I would like for people to be willing to [let me] do things if I feel like I can do them.” By offering employment opportunities, everyone benefits.

What (Definitely) Not to Say

1. “I’ll pray for you to be healed.”

Pity is one of the most offensive responses to a person’s disability. It’s an ineluctable reality for those who have them, and a significant number report they wouldn’t reverse their condition, even if they had the chance. While prayers may come from a genuine place, most people who are disabled would probably prefer if you send your good intentions to your congressman to fight for independent living facilities, safeguards for health coverage and enforcement of the ADA’s ban on employment discrimination.

Many people with disabilities also consider it equally patronizing to heap praise on their “inspirational” life. For those of us growing up in the Oprah generation, we don’t see the harm in a compliment. But as someone with a disability, Carlson explains, “We are just trying to live our lives like everyone else. Your comment will have the negative effect, reminding us how different people still think we are.”

2. “We’ve got two wheelchairs coming through.”

No one wants their personhood reduced to their equipment. Along with that, there’s plenty of other outdated, dehumanizing language to avoid: cripple, retard, victim, dumb or mute, insane, deformed, lame, invalid. Handicapped, in vogue for two decades after the 1970s, is also out of fashion as people came to prefer “disabilities,” a term that connoted a medical reality but didn’t imply a perpetual disadvantage in society, journalist Jack A. Nelson writes in “The Disabled, the Media, and the Information Age.” Some new terms like “differently abled” or “physically challenged” are also viewed as over-the-top, so hypersensitive as to be insensitive. “If you sprain your ankle, you’re physically challenged. That’s not the same as being culturally and physically defined as disabled,” says Watlington.
What’s considered best is to recognize a person’s humanity first, then their disability. Say a “person with epilepsy,” for example, rather than an “epileptic.” “To say that someone is ‘disabled’ implies that she or he is broken or flawed,” says Stephens. Using person-first language “attributes it more as a modifier and not an inherent part of their being,” Stephens adds. Of course, if you’re unsure which term a person prefers, asking will always get you the right answer.

3. “Were you born with that affliction?”

Besides often mistaking a disability for the whole person, people generally associate disabilities with suffering and pain. They can’t imagine a disabled person being happy and see her as a victim. “I have had perfect strangers come up to me and instead of greeting me or saying hello, they say, ‘What’s wrong? What happened?’” Tim Vaughn, marketing director for Eastman Kodak, tells DiversityInc. Like the rest of us, people with disabilities are looking for fulfillment in their lives — despite the extra hurdles they need to overcome. That’s not to say they don’t miss abilities, even ones they never had. “Anytime I hear someone talking about what’s outside the window, I lament that I can’t see,” Berrier says. But he finds other ways to bring himself joy like studying bird sounds, a beauty that surrounds all of us but that is ignored by most.

4. “You wouldn’t be able to handle children.”

One of the biggest upcoming battles disability advocates see on the horizon is protecting family life. Questions linger about whether a person with disabilities would be fit to take care of a child or might even pass on a hereditary condition to their child. But behind this argument lurks the assumption that people with disabilities are incapable, an argument used to justify the government’s sterilization of 60,000 Americans with disabilities by 1960. Just because someone may have physical challenges, however, does not mean she’d be a bad parent. “Any time we start making assumptions about what people can and cannot do, we’re getting into scary territory,” Watlington says.

5. “But how do you go to the bathroom?”

While it might be okay to inquire about someone’s medical condition, asking a stranger about the intimate details of their lives risks turning him or her into a sideshow curiosity. There is obviously a need to educate people about accessibility issues, but there’s also a limit to what needs to be discussed. You wouldn’t question anyone else about her restroom habits, and there’s no reason to think that a person’s disability makes it acceptable to ask.
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