Put yourself in this situation: you’re sitting on a nice bench eating your Jimmy Johns sandwich. You see a girl (whom you don’t know) rolling down a sidewalk in her wheelchair. There’s a pretty sharp angle where the sidewalk slopes down to join the road and she’s rolling full-speed down towards that junction. When she gets there, the footplate on her wheelchair suddenly bottoms out and gets stuck in that stupid inconvenient crevice where the sidewalk meets the road. Her wheelchair comes to a screeching halt, and that ridiculously large, ridiculously full purse jumps right off of her lap and empties itself onto the road. To your surprise, she bursts out laughing, and you’re tempted to let a giggle squeak, although you’re not sure if that would be rude. Is it okay to laugh at that complete stranger? Would it really be laughing at her if she’s laughing too? What if she was your friend… then would it be okay? What about if that girl made a joke? Is it a trap, or are you supposed to laugh? Are you obligated to laugh?
Let’s talk handicap-etiquette for a second. It’s come to my attention that the line between what is considered appropriate and inappropriate seems to be a bit blurry for people interacting with us cripples. I had a conversation with some classmates the other day about when it is and isn’t okay to laugh and joke when it comes to another person’s disability. I’m always the girl spilling her purse like in the story above rather than the one sitting watching the girl spill her purse so it was a very entertaining conversation since I’ve never really thought about disabilities from that side of the aisle. Since that conversation, I’ve noticed how much strangers are walking on eggshells when it comes to my disability, so afraid that they will cross a line or offend me. Unfortunately, there’s not really a line set in stone separating the appropriate from the inappropriate, and certain things that aren’t offensive to me could very well be offensive to the next person. In general, though, it seems like there are a few things that would be universally irritating and certain things that are generally acceptable. If you’re handicapped, I hope you find some humor in some of the situations I’ll talk about in this post, and maybe you’ve been there with me. If you’re not handicapped, maybe this will help you out the next time a girl gets her footplate stuck and spills all of her crap on the ground J
So here’s a quick synopsis of some ground rules, and then I’ll tell you about some things to NOT do or I might run over your toes!
We should all stop thinking so much, and rely a little more on common sense. If I’m laughing or joking around, you can probably do the same. If I’m crying on the other hand and you’d like to continue your day unharmed, you probably shouldn’t crack a joke at that moment. Most of the time I joke about it to make others feel more comfortable and make an embarrassing situation not so embarassing, so if I’m joking, it’s a pretty safe bet that you can join in, especially if we’re friends. There’s nothing more embarrassing than when I make a joke (like when I show you my embarrassing zombie-like walk and say ‘hey guys, I’m trying out for the Walking Dead!’) and there’s crickets afterwards because my friends are scared it’s a trap or something to laugh. TJ and I have this running joke that whenever I fall, he tells me that I’m doing a good job of cleaning the carpet. It makes light of an otherwise unpleasant situation, and I always really appreciate that!
Even when it comes to asking me about my disability, use some common sense and listen to your gut. Last night I went to the movies and a couple of staff members were really curious about why I was in the wheelchair and what was going on so they just asked. I’m not telepathic or anything, but I can normally tell when somebody is curious out of the good nature of their heart and when they’re just trying to be a dick. If you’re really just interested and want to understand what’s going on and I seem receptive, just go ahead and ask. Thus far, I have yet to be offended when people ask questions about it unless I know they’re doing it embarrass or degrade me.
Now to the snarky bit… Here are 7 things that I would stay away from doing whe you’re interacting with someone with a disability. Some of them come from a good place but it ends up coming out rude; others are just plain rude. So grit your teeth, and if you’ve been in any of these situations, enjoy complaining with me for a minute
1) No backhanded compliments, please! You’re so pretty for being in a wheelchair! Can’t we just stop after the pretty part?
2) Pity isn’t necessary. You poor thing. Your life must be so hard. It may just be people expressing their sympathy, but your pity indicates that you think my life is somehow pathetic, and I find that insulting. I like my life, thank you very much!
3) Don’t avoid inviting me just to protect me from things that I can’t do. Do you want to come out with us to ______ tonight? Even if that place isn’t handicap-accessible, it’s still nice to know that you thought of me! Wouldn’t you rather be home but know that you had somewhere you could be tonight rather than just at home?
4) You don’t need to pull your kids away like I’m going to eat them or something. You may not have noticed but I’m in a wheelchair, not foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog.
5) Don’t treat me differently just because I’m handicapped. If you’re overly nice or overly mean or overly standoffish, whether its positive treatment or negative treatment, I don’t need or want to be treated differently. I’m just like you; I just use wheels to get around rather than my legs, and it would mean a lot to me if you treated me like you would any other person.
6) Please don’t talk to me like I’m a child. I wouldn’t assume that your body doesn’t work even though you’re obviously an idiot, so don’t assume that I’m an idiot just because my body obviously doesn’t work. (Whew, that was harsh, but kind of necessary to get my point across :-P)
7) Most importantly, do not assume that you can get a grasp of anyone’s situation based on surface-level characteristics. There are a million possible reasons why I’m in this wheelchair, and you may not be able to see a single one of them by looking at me. The only assumption that you should be making is that I’m using this chair because I need it, and leave it at that.
Food for thought: A lot of the misconceptions about disabilities come from ignorance. People stereotype because it’s quick, easy, and they don’t know any better. People make assumptions because they have no idea what kind of person you are, where you’ve been or what you’re going through now. Show them that they’re wrong. If they assume you are childish, be mature. If they assume you’re stupid, be intelligent and well-spoken. If they assume you’re rude and disrespectful, treat them with the decency that they may not deserve. You can’t control whether or not people change their mindset when it comes to disabilities, but at least you will be proud of the one thing that you can control: the way you treat them in return.