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Disabled at Vanderbilt: What (and what not) to say when you talk to someone about their disability

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Disabled at Vanderbilt: What (and what not) to say when you talk to someone about their disability

Claire Barnett | Multimedia Director | claire.barnett@vanderbilt.edu

Claire Barnett | Multimedia Director | claire.barnett@vanderbilt.edu

Bruce Brookshire

Claire Barnett | Multimedia Director | claire.barnett@vanderbilt.edu

Bruce Brookshire

Bruce Brookshire

Claire Barnett | Multimedia Director | claire.barnett@vanderbilt.edu

Claire Barnett, Multimedia Director

For most people, talking about disability feels like walking on eggshells. You don’t want to say the wrong thing and offend someone. And discussing disability with a disabled person can seem pretty intimidating if you don’t knows the ins and outs out out disability-respectful language.

But if we avoid talking about disability entirely, we’re ignoring a huge part of many people’s identity and experiences. So the point of this article is to give some basic guidelines for what you should and shouldn’t say when you discuss disability with someone who’s disabled. Keep in mind that this includes visible and invisible disabilities.

What Not to Say

You don’t look like you’re disabled!

When someone with an invisible disability tells you about their condition, NEVER tell them they don’t look disabled. This can come across as doubt, like you are questioning that they truly have/deserve a legitimate diagnosis.

That sounds terrible/I’m glad I don’t have that.

This seems obvious, but you shouldn’t tell a disabled person that you pity them or you’re glad you aren’t in the same situation as them. It’s just rude.

That doesn’t sound so bad/I wish I had that!

I’ve actually heard people say before that they wish they were in a wheelchair or that they had ADHD. Not only do statements like these minimize the challenges that someone with a disability faces, but they’re egocentric. If you’re discussing disability with a disabled person, truly listen as they describe their experiences instead of turning the conversation to yourself.

You’re an inspiration.

You may mean well, but this statement is patronizing. You’re implying that because the person is disabled, you had lower expectations for them, making their everyday accomplishments “inspiring.”

Do you get special treatments/accommodations?

This is none of your business, unless the person specifically brings it up. If they do receive accommodations of some sort, those are designed to give them fair and equal access to things, not preferential treatment.

I don’t see disability.

You definitely do see disability, so this is actually just ridiculous. And even if the disability is invisible, it is foolish to pretend that it doesn’t exist. It’s crucial to recognize and talk about the unique experiences of people with disabilities while also not treating them as if they are fragile/worth less.

What to Say

Thanks for sharing your experiences with me.

This simple statement says a lot – you are indicating that you don’t pity them, and that you are thankful that they trusted you enough to share.

Is there anything I should know/do that would be helpful to you?

If you ask this, the person you’re talking to may not have a response. Or they may provide some knowledge that will allow you to be a better friend/coworker/peer. For example, someone with deafness might ask that you face them when you talk so you they can read your lips. Most importantly, you should never assume that you know how to best support a person without asking!

Do you prefer to discuss your disability/condition openly, or would you rather not talk about it again?

Maybe they are talking to you about their disability because they love to share that part of their identity – or maybe they’re telling you because they feel like that information is necessary to share. Some people (myself included) love to have conversations about what makes us different, but others don’t, so your best bet is to directly ask them what they prefer.

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About the Writer
Claire Barnett, Multimedia Director

Claire Barnett ('19) is the Multimedia Director of the Vanderbilt Hustler. As the director of all photo and video content, she is rarely seen without a...

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