Think Before Speaking With People Living With a Disability

When you have the pleasure of meeting or seeing someone living with a disability there are certain things that you should and shouldn’t do. Sometimes people don’t know what to do or what to say so I urge you to think about it before you choose what to say.

I have had a disability since I was 15 years old so I have heard my fair share of comments and awkward questions.  I don’t fit the “look” of being disabled so people often stare until they can figure out what the disability is. When I had my foot it was less obvious so I had people come up to me when I was in my wheelchair and ask me what happened very soon after my accident. It was painful to talk about at that time. I usually kept a sock on my foot because I didn’t want people to see it because of how disfigured it was. If I got paid a $1 for every time someone asked what happened I would be rich. Usually people asked if I had sprained my ankle because my foot looked swollen from the muscle flap they put on it to repair it. I think the strangest question was when a man asked me if I got bit by a horse while we were on vacation and I was laying out at the pool.

When it wasn’t as noticeable because of my pants and I was able to walk without assistive devices people’s words and actions got worse because it was harder for people to see my disability and had people call mall security on me for parking in a handicap spot, the police question me for parking in a handicap spot, even though I had all the paperwork and handicap sticker but he continued to question me and because their data base was down he decided to “let me off the hook”. People would say things like “yeah you are pretty handicapped” or call me “lazy”. I only used the sticker on the days that I needed it and if I was having a good day I wouldn’t use it in case someone else was worse off than I was.

I had my leg amputated when I was 34 so I thought the comments would stop but they haven’t. When I was able to wear a leg I got more comments because you couldn’t always see what was under my pant leg. Even without a leg though people will say things that just shock me. It’s like asking someone when they are due after they have already had their baby. Once you say it you can never take it back.

These are some of the most awkward questions and responses I have had since becoming an amputee. They are often followed by awkwardness and/or silence.

“How long are you going to be like that?”

Me:” Uh, forever”

“What did you do twist your ankle?”

Me: No I had my leg amputated.

“I was on crutches once. I totally feel your pain.”

Me: Silence (Thinking: No one’s story is the same)

My 8-year-old daughter: “Are you kidding me??? How in the world does she think she can feel your pain? You had your leg amputated.” (I still hear about this one randomly because it made her so mad)

“I hope I am not lazy and use a scooter someday” (This was when I could wear my leg)

Me: Take my leg off, flip it upside down, put it in the scooter and pull up next to him and smile as the man’s mouth was hanging wide open.

As I am on crutches in the bathroom at a restaurant and the floor is all wet so I am trying to get my crutches onto two dry squares and not fall down an employee says  “Oh my gosh what happened.”

Me: I start to tell the story and stop because I am concentrating so hard to not fall so instead asked “Can you please wipe up the water on the floor so I don’t fall?” This was a time I needed help not to tell my story.

I LOVE kids! They are so innocent and curious and will come right up and ask “What happened?” I tell them and they say things like “I’m sorry” or even “That’s really cool” and go on their way. Sometimes they just stare but usually if I stare back they will catch my gaze and just smile back.

Some adults try to sneak a peek and act like I can’t see them. I’m not blind just physically disabled. People ask me if it bothers me that I get stared at all the time.  Some days it does and other days it doesn’t because I don’t have time to look around to see how many people are staring because I am driving my scooter or trying to not fall down on crutches. It bothers my family more because they are the ones that are watching me and the people around me. I do think that it would be interesting to wear a hidden camera to see just how many people do watch me in a day.

If you have questions ask but make sure it is in the right moment and that you think about your question before you ask it.  Some people will just smile or will ask if I mind if they ask what happened. I would much rather answer questions than deal with attempts at being funny or the small talk back firing into awkwardness. Realize though that some people don’t want to talk about it because it was a very traumatic time for them.

Remember that once you say something you can apologize but you can’t ever erase it. Just because someone doesn’t fit your idea of disabled doesn’t mean that they aren’t. You can’t always see the pain going on inside their body. If you don’t want to feel stupid and stick your foot in your mouth don’t judge or assume you know what you see in front of you.

Finally don’t feel like you need to apologize for your child asking questions, unless they are inappropriate questions or the person gets upset about the question. Most of my friends that live with a disability would rather answer questions but there are some people who may not want questions asked. I suggest having a conversation with your child about when it is a good time to ask and when it isn’t. I personally always thank them for asking.


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