Right now, I bet you’re saying to yourself, “Oh, my god, what kind of person would be a dick to someone who’s disabled? That’s so fucked up. I always make sure I’m extra nice to the disabled people I meet.”
Well, before you pat yourself on the back too much, I can guarantee that you’ve been “that guy” at some point. Chances are, you were also blissfully ignorant about it. In my experience, I’ve found that people get so caught up in trying to be nice to me that they don’t realize they’re actually being incredibly rude and aggravating. (I’m looking at you, social justice extremists.)
Before you start on me, your good intentions don’t count as a get out of jail free card on this one. At the end of the day, even a well-meaning dick is still a huge dick. But I’m here to help, so listen up. Here’s a list of things to help you avoid –- accidentally or otherwise -– being a dick to your disabled friend:
DON’T. SPEAK. TO. ME. LIKE. I. CAN’T. UNDERSTAND. YOU.
Surprisingly, the fact that my legs don’t work has no bearing on my ears. They do, in fact, function just fine. As does my ability to process what you’re saying. There’s no need for you to speak more loudly and slowly, enunciate more, or mime things when you’re speaking to me. Also, just so you know, when you do this it makes you look like a dying fish, which is not a good look on anyone.
Ditto for speaking to the person behind me. I don’t want to hear any of this “It's easier for me to make eye contact with them” nonsense. If you are addressing something that deals with me directly, speak to me first. No one likes to be referred to as “she” when they’re within earshot and a little bending won’t kill you.
While we’re on the subject, quit talking to me in that voice usually reserved for toddlers and the elderly. Since I fall into neither category, all it does is earn you a special spot in hell, right beside people who text during movies.
Don’t worry, if you’re dealing with someone who truly can’t communicate, I’m sure whoever they’re with will make it known. I also guarantee that everyone will appreciate your attempts at communicating with normalcy and respect.
"So how long have you been disabled?" and "What's wrong with you?" DO NOT count as small talk.
While I was in college, I produced one of my friend’s film projects and, as it often goes with those things, I had just listened to a stage mom scream at me for an hour. When she cooled down, she saddled up to me, obviously intending to make up via small talk.
She chose to open with, “So, how come you walk funny?” Snort.
I wanted to respond with, “So, how come you’re a huge idiot?” I didn’t. Partially because I have a crippling (Hah!) fear of awkward social situations, but mainly because I knew her signed talent release wasn’t as legally binding as I had made it out to be. But, don’t think I wasn’t picturing her slow, painful demise in my head.
Bottom line, though, the ins and outs of a disability can be one of those touchy personal subjects. It’s not something that I’m always super keen on discussing with someone I’ve known for about 30 seconds.
That being said, if you’re genuinely curious, it’s okay to ask questions. Just, you know, be respectful about how you ask. Actually, as a general rule of thumb, I would ask the person if they mind talking about their disability before launching directly into your inquiries.
If your ass is just searching for conversation, stick to the weather.
Stop Asking If I Can Have Sex.
I’m not just addressing you on this one, random stranger. I have a friend that I love more than anything. She is the nicest person ever, but in the first year-and-a-half we knew each other, she must have asked me if everything was functional “down there” at least five times.
(Since I can literally hear you going, “But, wait, like, is it?” through your computer screens, I’ll let you in on this little tidbit: Unless you are the person I happen to be sexing, it’s none of your business.)
Thankfully, for the rest of you, s. e. Smith already explained that crippled people are aces at adapting things and have found some pretty cool nontraditional ways to get down to business. Besides, aren't we over the whole "Heteronormative missionary-style intercourse is the only real way to have sex" thing yet?
No, seriously, please tell me we’re over it.
Don't assume I need help. But don't assume that I don't either.
I know this sounds complicated, but I promise it’s not: Just ask. Most people with disabilities are really good at knowing when they need help and asking for it themselves. However, if you see someone who looks like they might need assistance and you're not sure, take the initiative and ask them first.
I can tell you from experience that there is nothing more terrifying than someone (especially huge, burly dudes. Sorry guys.) grabbing onto you and moving you without your consent.
I realize that you’re coming from a place of the best intentions, which is awesome, but make them known and take my response for an answer. No means no. Always. No matter what we’re talking about.
I am not your role model.
This happens all the time, even if I’m just out to dinner with friends or something. But, one particular example sticks out in my mind. Last year, I spent pretty much every Saturday night hanging out in West Hollywood because, well, it’s awesome there. Eventually I started to notice a pattern to my nights.
At some point, someone would come up to me to say something like, “Girl, you are so brave. If something like that happened to me, I would never go out. You’re my inspiration.” That’s a direct quote.
The first time, it didn’t bother me too much because I had just downed a margarita the size of my head at late night happy hour. But when the same thing kept happening, I started analyzing what those people meant.
Once I literally stopped making out with someone because I was so put off by what I’d been told. YOU GUYS, I LITERALLY STOPPED MAKING OUT WITH SOMEONE’S FACE TO GO ON A SHAME SPIRAL. I was like, “Do I deserve to be here? Should I even be going out at all?” and a thousand other rum-and-coke-fueled, overly dramatic thoughts.
Then I remembered that I’m awesome and clearly those people have no idea how to give compliments before going on with my night. But let’s be clear: Even if you mean that as a compliment, it doesn’t come across that way.
Also, if you saw me as a person who is more than my disability, you’d know that I have a knack for cursing in inappropriate places, regularly neglect my gym membership, and eat way more french fries than is generally considered remotely healthy. If I’m really where you are getting your inspiration, then good luck.
Don’t try to heal me.
If only to save us both the moment of extreme awkwardness where you (and bystanders) stare at me expectantly, waiting for me to magically rise up and walk after you’ve prayed over me. Spoiler Alert: Not going to happen. Trust me, I’ve been down this road before.
This one really bothers me on a variety of levels: 1) I don’t subscribe to your belief system. Don’t drag me into that mess. 2) We’ve already talked about this, but being touched by strangers is creepy. 3) I hate being the center of attention, especially the kind of attention that public healings are apt to attract. 4) Did you ever stop to consider that maybe, possibly, I might like who I am and might not jump at the chance to be “healed”?
If you really want, you can pray for me, I guess. Silently and to yourself.
Now, I came at this list from the prospective of someone who has mobility issues. I realize that’s not even close to covering the entire spectrum of disability and I’ve left a lot out. I’m counting on the rest of you to help me with that. Do you have something to add? Did I get it all wrong? Let me know!
When Tara is not up on her soapbox, she’s attempting to cultivate a quirky Internet presence. Follow her on twitter: @Felloffthebrink.