Meeting a person with a disability for the first time can leave people with a lot of questions. Personally, I’ve made my life about stuff so I don’t mind. However, some questions are frustrating or repetitive. As someone who has been a lot of peoples “first times” here are five things I wish able-bodied people (bonus fact: Able-bodied is what you are if you are not disabled.) knew upfront. Once we get these out of the way I believe, conversations can be both more interesting and productive on both sides.
Handicapped bathroom stalls are not optional:
Those larger stalls are for people with disabilities, no buts. I’m amazed how often people defend this one to me in restrooms. Stalls are made larger and have bars for those of us with mobility concerns and mobility aids. If you are using this stall for any other reason you are wrong. The two most common arguments I get are as follows: Women with children use them because it is easier to fit or two the bathroom was crowded and they were just using it “really quick.” To the first excuse I say I understand that it is easier for you and your five year old to use the larger stall. However, this is not an issue of convince for me. Many of us can not use a typical stall safely. We do not use the larger stall because it is easier, we do it because we need to. The worst case for you and your five year old is that you have to squeeze into a smaller stall. The worst case for me is to soil myself in public. This is simply not a fair trade. To the second response I so often get I say unless you are literally about to pee your pants, you are prioritizing your convince over a disabled persons needs. I have many times gone into a bathroom where someone thought “oh there’s nobody else using it” and had to wait for them upon arrival soiling myself in the process.
More Radical Reads: 21 Ways Able-bodied Privilege Looks
Asking if we need help is great. Pushing yourself on us isn’t:
I always appreciate that someone who see’s me and thinks that I’m struggling wants to help. I think most of us do. But, if you ask me if I need help and I say no it is not okay to do what you want anyway. This is at best patronizing and worst dangerous. For instance, I was once on a pier riding a Ferris wheel with my fiancé. He picked me up to place me in the ride and it made the attendant nervous so he asked if he could help. We politely told him no since we knew we could handle it safely ourselves. Upon exiting the ride my fiancé placed me back into my wheelchair allowing me to scoot myself back into the seat. Despite being told we didn’t need help the attendant grabbed me from behind and slid me back into my chair. Though I have no doubt his intentions were good. That being said, I like most people was not pleased with being moved around by and touched by some man I didn’t know without my permission. Because it ended well, it was simply unpleasant. However, for a lot of people I know being lifted unexpectedly by someone who doesn’t know how to do it properly could result in injury. Each body is different and you should never assume you know how to move someone else safely.
Talk to us not about us:
Fairly often, I’ll go to a restaurant and the waitress will ask my mother or my fiancé what I want. Though not all examples are this obvious but the rule of thumb should always be if you want to know something ask the person directly. We know ourselves best and though we can’t tell you what every disabled person thinks or feels we can usually answer whatever question you might have for us. Some of us do have communication issues, but many of us don’t and those of us who do often know how to work around them. If you want to know what I want on my pancakes, ask. If you want to know what you should tell your child or if I’ll come talk to your child about my disability, ask. That’s the only way to learn.
Our relationships are just like yours:
I can’t tell you how often people assume my fiancé is my nurse or my friend, anything but my romantic partner. I think this is largely because we rarely see disabled folks depicted as being in relationships especially with able-bodied people. Yes, my fiancé is able-bodied. No he does not have a fetish. Yes, we are sexual just like most young engaged couples would be. I think you’d be bored to death to see just how similar we are to any other couple you know, even in bed.
More Radical Reads: But You Look Fine to Me: Invisible Disability and Flying
We’re the experts on ourselves:
It is important to read what you can and educate yourself on issues related to disability. If your reading this, you obviously want to learn about the experience of disabled people (thank you) but my voice does not speak for all of us. Keep listening to the disabled voices in your life and community.
Taylor Carmen is a writer, speaker, activist and a believer that art can change our world. She has spoken at conferences for disabled students and their families all over the east coast. These experiences, along with being an active member of a local poetry community and creating workshops on what it means to be body positive, offer her a unique perspective from which to write. In her work she hopes to examine what it means to be more loving and accepting of ourselves, as well as how to do what the author John Green calls “imagine each other more complexly”.
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[Headline image: Three individuals sit in a business setting at a table. One person with blonde hair swept up is facing two other individuals across the table. The person facing the table has a look of frustration on their face. Pexels.com]