1.What is wrong with you? /What happened to you?
Yes, I know what you mean. Folks wanting to know about my disability has never bothered me. However, phrasing it like this implies that something must have gone wrong. The suggestion that able-bodies are normal and healthy while bodies like mine must be the result of an accident or a mistake.
What to say instead: This can be a tough one for well intentioned people to phrase. I suggest Do you mind me asking why you use a wheelchair/walker/cane etc.? I also welcome Do you mind me asking what your disability is?
2.You are such and inspiration.
On the surface this phrase isn’t so bad. But saying this to a disabled person who is just living their regular life is patronizing. It suggests that so little is out there for disabled people that every little task like doing the dishes should be a big deal. I’d like to be inspiring to people. I’d like to inspire people because I can give a great speech or write a great poem but not for just living a complete and complex life.
What to say instead: Generally, I’d say don’t say anything. Congratulating me for getting out of bed will not serve anyone no matter how you phrase it. If your looking to strike up a conversation, do it like you might with anyone else.
3. Can you have sex?
I’ve heard this question in every form and setting you can imagine. Most times it seems to be meant as a come on, like if I haven’t the asker would like to volunteer to help me figure out how. Other times it seems to be a strange sort of voyeuristic curiosity. The asker seems to be deciding if I’m “normal” and that’s a box I’d need to check to qualify. I wouldn’t recommend it in either case.
What to say instead :If you meet a disabled person you have a romantic or sexual interest in treat them as you would any other potential partner. There might be adaptations to make if it works out but just like you wouldn’t open with a person’s favorite position this is not the place to start. If it is a matter of curiosity, I ask you to consider why you’re asking. If you’re not disabled yourself and looking for tips (which I welcome because disabled folks deserve good sex like everybody else) and you aren’t looking to have sex with this person, I suggest just leaving the issue alone.
4. You’re so lucky he loves/wants/takes care of you.
This one especially grinds my gears. I’m married to an amazing man. I am lucky to have him but not because I’m disabled and should be thankful someone is willing to have me. This assumes that disabled people are incapable of being full romantic and sexual partners and such should be glad some person would be interested in us. My husband is a fabulous cook, a great road trip partner, a generous friend, a great teammate. Those are things to be grateful for. But he’d also tell you a lot of the same things about me. He’d also tell you that there were days even months of our relationship where I mostly took care of him.
What to say instead: Assume disabled folks are full partners in their relationships. Ask how they met or what they love about each other. Let them decide what to be grateful for.
5. I would hate to be disabled/ I could never do what you do/ I’d kill myself.
I think when people say this sort of thing they mean it is an act of commiseration. They think it’s a misery loves company sort of situation. That is the problem however. The assumption that all disabled people are unhappy and that’s what we should expect for disabled lives is just untrue. Further more if we really are feeling bad, hearing that our life is your worst case scenario is not helpful.
What to say instead: See number two.
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6. Is he your nurse/care-giver/aid? (In reference to my husband)
Like I said before the assumption that disabled folks can’t be romantic or sexual partners doesn’t help anybody.
What to say instead: Wait to be introduced.
7. Can you/shower/use the toilet/insert other private task by yourself?
I’m all for open and honest conversation but part of treating disabled folks as full human beings with dignity is respecting that their bodies are not for public view. Unless you’re needing to become involved in the personal care of a close friend or family member leave this one alone.
What to say instead: Do you need help? Respect the answer.
[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]