Living with a disability presents challenges, of that there is no doubt.  But for most people, whilst it is a fact of their lives, it is not the most interesting thing about them.  Nor do they wish it to define them in everyday conversation.   Maybe it is ignorance, perhaps it is lack of awareness, or simply a need to overcompensate socially.  But, for some people, seeing past another person’s disability can prove challenging.  And in trying too hard to say or do the right thing, we can inadvertently do just the opposite.  Here we take a look at some of the ‘helpful’ personas that won’t be winning any inclusivity awards any time soon.

The Sympathiser

Sure, life can be tough living with a disability.  But equally for most people in such a position, it is also about finding ways to overcome the challenges and, like with everything in life, making the best of what you have.  Comments like ‘I don’t know how you do it’ and ‘You’re an inspiration’ may be warmly intended, but they are rarely welcome.  For the most part, it is empathy, not sympathy, that people with disabilities value.  Telling someone, in not so many words, that their life sucks is neither constructive nor motivating.  Supporting them in ways to feel involved both socially and professionally is, on the other hand, a different story.

The Social Engineer

‘My mother’s neighbour’s brother has a similar condition – I’m sure you’d love to meet each other’.  Really?  My best friend’s cousin drives the same make of car as me, but it doesn’t mean we will instantly bond, or indeed that we need to be forced into friendship.  Established networks and support groups are out there, and very often form a useful community for those who voluntarily elect to join them. But that is an entirely different thing to assuming two people will get on like a house on fire purely on the basis of their disabled status.

The Good Samaritan

Offering help is a good thing, provided you check that it is both welcome and appropriate.  Examples abound of visually impaired people being steered by the elbow across roads which they never intended to cross, simply because they happened to be standing waiting on the kerbside, or wheelchair users being pushed by ‘helpful’ able bodied people, when in fact they are capable and comfortable steering themselves.  Help is only help when it fulfils a real need, so it is best to ask before you dive in.

The Armchair GP

The first issue here is the intrusive questioning that those with disabilities can often face regarding their condition.  It would never occur to the socially well adjusted amongst us to enquire about someone’s medical history within ten minutes of meeting them.  Yet, add in a wheelchair, a physical disfigurement, or some other visual cue that there is a disability, and suddenly we can become surprisingly disinhibited about asking for details.  ‘Were you born like that?’.  ‘How did you end up that way?’.  ‘How do you manage to go to the toilet?’.  All more commonly posed questions than you would think (even that last one, believe it or not!). Worse still, now that the internet has all but dispensed with the need for a medical degree, there are those who cannot help but offer unsolicited (and unqualified) medical advice.  The advice here is simple.  Get to know the person first, before you even consider asking about their condition.  You’ll doubtless find out lots of interesting things about them that aren’t to do with their disability. And leave the medical advice to the professionals.

The Patroniser

This one bows firmly to the stigmas and unconscious perceptions that sadly continue to prevail alongside disability.  Disabled in body does not mean disabled in mind.  Yet, one of the common frustrations cited by the disabled community is the sense that they are being talked down to.  It may be as simple as the way you bend down to make eye contact (as you would with a child in a pushchair), or as extreme as posing your questions via a third party (‘Does she take sugar?’).  It might be in your tone of voice, or the pace and volume at which you talk.  Whatever your approach, remember it is an adult-to-adult interaction.  The presence of a wheelchair or a walking aid doesn’t turn someone into a geriatric, nor does it revert them to a pre-schooler.

Everyone is different and every situation is unique.  We are all comfortable with disclosure to a greater or lesser degree than the next person.  Some people welcome help but find it hard to ask for it.  And some people are fiercely independent.  The point is, until you get to know a person properly, and until you find out where they sit on all these complicated social spectrums, you can’t make any assumptions. And that is as true for someone living with a disability as it is for an able bodied person.

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