Yesterday I was reading something David (over at Growing Up with a Disability) was writing about – how his aide noticed during his recent trip that David “put a lot of energy out making other people feel comfortable” around him and his disability. I can relate.
People express their discomfort in various ways. There are a range of reactions. Some people say they’re afraid of saying/doing the wrong thing and refuse to take responsibility to learn how to be around people with disabilities. This places the burden on the person with a disability to ‘handle’ their discomfort. Others ask a lot of uninvited – even intrusive questions. Then there’s the opposite extreme – a few who don’t acknowledge disabled people when they speak, as if they are invisible. This can cause quite a few problems as well.
It does take energy to deal with these reactions. I’ve spoken to a number of people in the disability community who feel that it’s not the responsibility of the disabled person to educate others. People with disabilities want to concentrate on living their lives, not being seen as a spokesperson. I’d also add that behavior which makes a disabled person feel as if he/she is a problem to have around is inappropriate. I see this far too often when I’m out, where a situation is exaggerated due to a slight inconvenience.
Because of the amount of discomfort some people show, I always encourage people to educate themselves about disability – learn about various disabilities. There are many resources available (I even have a tag which I’ll include below) – books, videos, etc. In addition to learning about disabilities, it’s important to educate oneself about disability etiquette. This includes how to act around those with various disabilities. Part of the learning process is being around people with disabilities, interacting with them and learning.
It’s also important to examine your attitudes toward disability – both positive and negative ones. What were you taught as a child about disability? How do you perceive disabled people in general? Any fears or anger you have may be displaced onto disabled people you meet if those feelings remain unconscious, for example. If you’ve had a number of positive relationships with disabled people, this will impact your attitude.
Remaining teachable, using common sense, and keeping a sense of humor goes a long way toward resolving being uncomfortable around people with disabilities .
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan