Disability Etiquette: Did you really just say that?

Last weekend, my husband and I tagged along with some friends on their yearly ugly sweater pub crawl. Everyone danced around with flashy tinsel and ornaments located in places they shouldn’t be, while loud metal music pounded our ear drums (that was spot number three). Everyone was joyful and talkative. Not being much of a drinker myself, I was fully aware of the repeat sentences that started to play from characters in our group that were having a little too much fun. To my delight, one of these fun ladies latched on to me and decided to keep telling me how much she admired me. Now, this would normally be something of flattery, but she expressed her admiration for my unconditional love of my husband because he is in a wheelchair. There was no point in enlightening someone who is inebriated, especially when she is wearing an ice skating polar bear on her sweater. So, I am sharing my insight on here about what not to say and do. Yes, we have encountered all of these not to do’s.

1. Don’t make assumptions about someone’s disability.

Disability varies from person-to-person just like hair color, height, and the weather in Portland during the winter. My husband had a motorcycle accident and survived going over a 30 foot plus cliff without any brain injuries. He just happened to land on a log that severed some of his nerves. He is a super hero. He can’t walk, which is really no big deal. It sure makes his shoes last forever. He drives, goes to the gym (he can bench almost 300 pounds), and is a very active person. He is smart, funny, handsome, and one of the most positive people you will ever meet. If you are really curious about what happened, just ask.  But, ask in a courteous way. Instead of asking, “What is wrong with you?”, how about trying, “Would you mind if I ask what happened?”

Plus, if you really want your mind blown, try going to a wheelchair basketball tournament. I bet after watching one game your views will change. Though, my husband recommends not playing wheelchair basketball since it will destroy your shoulders.

2. Avoid saying things like, “it is so great that you are out” or “you are an inspiration”.

Though your intentions are good, saying either of these “compliments” kind of sound like you think the person should be at home wasting away. Granted, a lot of people with a mobile disability do stay home a lot, but not because they don’t want to have a life. Staying home might be related to a health issue, weather issues (try holding an umbrella during a down pour), lack of transportation, or the intended location might not be accessible. Being in a wheelchair doesn’t mean your life is over; it just means you have to do things a little differently. To tell someone who they are an “inspiration” because the person is living life tends to come across as a little condescending.

3. Please don’t say to a spouse, friend, or relative that it “must be hard”. Followed by, “I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable”.

Actually, it’s not always hard. Life will throw you a loop no matter your situation. Everyone goes through hard times. Our hard times are just different from yours. Honestly, your hard times might even be harder than ours. We don’t feel uncomfortable about it, but clearly you do or you wouldn’t mention it. If you do feel uncomfortable, ask yourself why.

4. Don’t say, “you must be an amazing person to be with him; he’s lucky to have you.”

Actually, I’m lucky to have him. Who else would put up with my hours of playing flute etudes and practicing Chris Isaak tunes on the guitar over and over again, listening to all my sci-fi story ideas, make me go to the gym for my health when I really just want another Reese’s peanut butter cup, and let me be a complete mess when I’ve had a bad day. I’m not a saint because I love him unconditionally. To say so makes me question who you are as a person. He is an amazing man who can make people smile with his countless stories from his crazy youth, walk the clueless of the clueless through computer hard drive re-installs, make jokes about not feeling his legs after getting hit by a car, and make up songs about my dog while I’m doing homework. He’s the love of my life.

5. If it is not a question that you would ask a stranger, then don’t ask.

It’s really inappropriate to ask a stranger if they can have sex or kids. If you are on a first date, that might be fair game, but use common sense. If the person wants you to know the information he or she will tell you without you having to ask.

6. Do not sit on someone’s lab without their permission. This really happens.

You can cause an injury. Seriously. You cannot assume anything about someone’s injury. Some people with mobility issues may have osteoporosis or have little control over core balance. If you are slamming your rear onto someone’s lap, you can break a bone or completely knock the person out of their chair. One young lady pushed her way into our dance circle at a club and tried to “fall” onto my husband’s lab. Fortunately, my ninja like reflexes pushed her out of the way just in the nick of time.

7. If your house is inaccessible, don’t be offended if we miss your party.

Once, my husband and I somehow made it up and down three flights of stairs. Though we survived unscathed, we decided that will never happen again unless we are being chased my zombies. It’s not only a safety issue for both of us, but it’s really not a smart idea in heeled sandals. Plus, saying that he can pee in the backyard or in a bottle because your bathroom is not accessible doesn’t make it okay. Would you make any of your other friends relieve themselves under the stars?

Don’t worry if you have violated the etiquette. You will not be ostracized for the rest of eternity. Just be aware. Take a chance to talk with someone with a disability. You will learn the true capabilities of a person’s strength and see life through a different perspective.