Understanding is the best way to relate to other people’s issues. In my experience living with a disability, the most awkward encounters were with people who did not understand my disability. So I wanted to see how much of a difference “understanding” could make.
I recently began talking to a few people online who had some form of disability or uncommon condition. Some manifested physically, some psychologically; some from birth, some developed later in life. Bottom line, all very unique. I was intrigued by all these conditions I’ve never had to deal with before, and honestly doubt I actually could. But I was so worried about unwittingly offending some of these amazing people that their conditions became somewhat a barrier for me. A barrier only I could see. For the first time in a long time I found myself in a position a lot of people find themselves in when interacting with me. But unlike others, I knew how I’d want to be approached having a disability. I’d want them to understand, at least to some extent, what I’m going through. And I know that can only truly happen if I let them know myself. Now I can’t speak for everyone with a disability on this but I know most want others to somewhat understand them if only to avoid being treated as a pariah. So for the people I spoke to online, I approached them with a “cautious curiosity”. By this I mean two things:
1. If it hasn’t been brought to light somehow, don’t ask about it.
In other words, if they hadn’t mentioned their disability directly or made it obvious in some other way (i.e. picture, profile/bio, etc.) it wasn’t really my business.
2. If you don’t know what it is, just ask.
If someone has let you know they have or “suffer” from something, chances are, they don’t mind talking about it at least a little, even if it’s just to get it out of the way.
Anyways, equipped with my “cautious curiosity”, I faced these interactions head on. Some people would slyly mention something regarding there disability in a different context (i.e. having to recharge a hearing aid; the convenience of drop curbs/kerbs etc.). Of course these won’t always mean they have a disability but only one way to find out. And only a handful of disabilities are easily visible or can naturally come up in conversation. The important thing is when you realise this person may have a certain condition, it’s OK to be a little curious. It’s not OK to be intrusive. Politely state your curiosity, be precise and respect their response. If you are not interested, fine, just don’t pretend you aren’t now aware. And please oh please, if you hear something you aren’t familiar with, please don’t assume or pretend it doesn’t matter. Trust me you’ll avoid much more embarrassment down the line. If you realise you’ve missed something in the conversation or have already embarrassed yourself, JUST SAY SO!
With this approach I was able to meet some truly amazing and remarkable people. All just trying to get by in this complicated world we call home. Among them I’ve met a self-made professional chef, an occupational therapist, a single mother, an activist for their disability, a young undergraduate, a Masters holder, a DJ… and the list goes on.
Now, my approach is by no means exhaustive or 100% foolproof. It reflects my own personal experience, but it’s better than bumbling your way through a normal conversation, embarrassing yourself or just unknowingly being offensive. Bottom line, the best way to relate to someone with a disability is to try and understand, at least to some extent, what their situation means for them.