I spent the first 24 years of my life without disabilities, so can understand that it can be difficult when you genuinely want to do or say the ‘right’ thing to someone with a disability, but just don’t know what that is. International Day of Persons with Disabilities is on the 3rd of December. In acknowledgement of the 4.4 million Australians with a disability, I’d like to straighten out just some of the many myths around disabilities.
Please remember: there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to engaging with a disabled person. Every individual has their own strengths and weaknesses, just like in the non-disabled community.
Myth 1: It’s easy to identify someone with a disability
As many as around 90% of disabilities are not easily identified when you look at the person. It’s true that some mental disabilities are easy to recognise, but conditions like ADHD, autism, a number of brain injuries and acquired disabilities are impossible to spot straight away. They might become apparent over time as you get to know a person, or they may just tell you straight away – everyone is different. The important thing is not to make assumptions after you find out someone has a disability.
I have both invisible and visible disabilities but for me, it’s what you can’t see that is far more challenging than what you can see.
Myth 2: Accessible restroom facilities are exclusively for individuals in wheelchairs
Yes, these restrooms are designed with more space to enable the wheelchair user to access them. But they’re not exclusively for this purpose. Others who have a disability and benefit from more space and additional privacy include those with a colostomy bag, which may require cleaning and running water in privacy. Adults with autism that still require assistance to use the restroom, also, benefit from some additional space and privacy. You don’t need to understand someone’s disability to empathise with their need for disabled restrooms, dignity and privacy.
Needing extra room to park your shopping trolley, trying on your latest purchases, having sex and ‘stinking up’ the accessible toilet instead of your usual restroom are all situations I’ve encountered while busting to pee!
Myth 3: Disabled workers are less reliable
Disabled workers sometimes have additional commitments outside of the workplace. Kidney disease patients require regular visits to their dialysis clinics, those with autism might require additional downtime to rest, and a number of other conditions require people to check in with their medical caregivers regularly for treatment and assessment. This does not make them less reliable as employees. These individuals are often more tenacious, determined, and dedicated to their roles in the workplace. Employers that afford these employees some flexibility are likely to enjoy unprecedented loyalty and dedication in return.
Myth 4: Disabled people dislike people asking questions about their disability – unless they’re children
This is often untrue, but not always. Some people prefer not to discuss their disability, while others are very happy to educate others on the way in which they live. Children who are innocently curious don’t personally cause me offence. It’s quite natural for youngsters to question everything and be non-judgemental. Adults who want to respect the disabled person’s preferences are welcome to ask if the recipient is comfortable with the questions before telling a child to stop asking questions. Hushing a curious child in public is unnecessary and does not convey respect, contrary to popular belief.
As an adult, if in doubt, simply ask yourself: “Would I say this to a non-disabled person?” For example, you’re unlikely to approach a stranger and ask them directly about a personal and private matter. So please pay disabled people the same courtesy and respect. It’s common sense and good manners.
The same applies when you go online: “If you wouldn’t say it in public then don’t say it online.” But people say a lot of offensive or ableist things to me online that they ALSO ask me in public.
- What’s wrong with you?
- What happened to your leg, hands, etc.
I would also kindly ask that all Instagrammers use Alt-text. It’s an “advanced option” just before you post. I use it whenever I can but sometimes forget, unfortunately. It means that visually impaired people can use their screen-reader software to tell them what your picture is of. It won’t appear in your caption (which is great for me because mine are already long enough) but means more people can access your content.
You simply have to give a description of what the image is of.
Myth 5: Disabilities are acquired at birth
Not all disabilities are acquired at birth. Injuries caused by car accidents, illnesses and other mishaps account for a fair number of disabilities as well. One type of disability is not really ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another and no two people with the same sort of disability will necessarily have a lot in common other than their medical diagnosis. All disabled people have unique backgrounds, interests and stories, whether they were born with a disability or acquired it later on.
Please feel free to send any more myths and by all means, disagree with me if you’ve had a different lived-experience. We all learn by respectfully sharing.
Lisa Cox is a multi-awarded writer, presenter and consultant based in Australia. She is also the author of two books, an advocate and ambassador, and Board Member of JustSociale. Lisa is on a mission to muse, educate and challenge. Her work has been published nationally and internally for publications like Huff Post and The Sydney Morning Herald.