7 things not to say to disabled people (and what to say instead)
Sarah Todd Hammer is a GL reader and disability advocate who dedicates her time to educating and raising awareness about the disabled community. Here, she writes about common phrases she hears as a disabled person, and why it's important for able-bodied people to avoid using them.
1. "You're so lucky!"
This is often said in reference to an accommodation that a Person With a Disability (PWD) receives. Although PWDs receive accommodations because we need them due to our disability, able-bodied people often perceive receiving an accommodation as a benefit and something to be jealous of rather than a necessity.
Accommodations make PWD's lives less difficult, and they are not something to be jealous of. Having to deal with the consequences of having a disability is not a fair sacrifice to make to receive an accommodation that improves our independence.
What to say instead: "I'm glad that accommodation can help you!"
2. "Only if I can have one"
Usually, this is said when a PWD asks someone to help open a food item. This is not about being unwilling to share a measly little chip or something; but rather, it is about the concept.
If you are only willing to help someone when they give you something in return, you are taking advantage of that person's disability. Many PWDs are perfectly willing to share! However, it should not be a requirement in order to receive help we need. Because without that help, we wouldn't be able to eat our food.
What to say instead: "Of course I'll open your food for you!"
3. "I'll pray for you"
Of course, living with a disability comes with health challenges that many PWDs do not wish to have. However, that does not necessarily mean PWDs wish to be healed or cured. Assuming PWDs wish to be healed directly feeds into the mentality that PWDs can't be happy because of our disabilities.
Many PWDs have been offered a new perspective on life because of our disabilities and appreciate all that having a disability has taught us and given us. So assuming that PWDs wish to be healed indirectly dismisses the positive aspects of having a disability.
What to say instead: It's not appropriate to randomly pray for someone. Rather, offer them emotional support only when they request that you do, or it is obvious such support is needed.
4. "I feel bad for you"
Many PWDs don't wish for people to feel bad for us. Every person has struggles—no matter if they have a disability or not. So feeling this deeper sense of sympathy only for PWDs insinuates that being disabled is everyone's worst possible fate.
Constantly feeling bad for or pitying PWDs contributes to the fear of being disabled that society holds. If people recognized that PWDs often can still live great lives, then this deep-seated fear wouldn't exist.
What to say instead: Express empathy and understanding rather than pity. "I'm here for you" or "I support you" are great alternatives.
5. "Your arms are so skinny"
It is never appropriate to comment on people's bodies. PWDs often face this scrutiny because our bodies don't always meet society's standards of what is considered "normal."
My arms are skinny because of my disability. My disability left me with severe muscle atrophy in my arms, which is why they are so skinny. I've had people tell me to eat more and ask if I have an eating disorder. Many PWDs who have muscle atrophy deal with comments like these.
Other examples include commenting on someone's scars, mobility aids or just in general criticizing our appearances.
What to say instead: Give a meaningful compliment!
6. "Why do you always talk about your disability?"
PWDs live with our disabilities 24/7. We can't ever just "turn off" the fact that we have a disability. Many of us don't think about our disabilities all the time (because that would be unhealthy), but we also don't ignore our disabilities, either.
Our disabilities often become a large part of our lives due to how they impact our independence, so it only makes sense that we talk about them frequently. Additionally, I (along with my other PWDs) am passionate about raising awareness for the disability community, so I enjoy discussing these matters to bring about change.
What to say instead: "I've learned so much about disability because of you," or "it's great that you're so passionate about disability awareness!"
7. "You're such an inspiration!"
This is the most common comment PWDs receive. It is one thing to find a PWD inspirational because they accomplished something not everyone has accomplished (such as surfing with one arm or dancing with paralysis). In my opinion, that attitude is acceptable, because those are great accomplishments that could inspire you to surf or dance.
However, it is another thing to find a PWD inspirational simply because we are positive and going about our lives. This attitude (once again) feeds into the mentality that PWDs can't live positive, productive, fulfilled lives. It shouldn't be inspirational that PWDs are happy. It should be the norm, it should be expected and it should be accepted.
If you find it inspirational when a PWD is happy, then you are indirectly saying that you don't expect PWDs to be happy because there is no way we could be happy while having a disability.
What to say instead: Compliment disabled people just as you would able-bodied people! "That's incredible that you've written books," or "you're a fabulous speaker," are great examples.
Sarah Todd Hammer is a 19-year-old girl from Atlanta, Georgia. She has a disorder called Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM) that originally left her paralyzed from the neck down in 2010. Now, she has recovered the ability to walk, but she still has partial paralysis in her shoulders, arms and right hand, and she is unable to move her left hand. She is a freshman at Davidson College and is a three-time published author, dancer, speaker and activist. Follow her on Instagram @sarahtoddhammer!