Misconceptions About People With Disabilities
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Picture this: you are an American traveling solo to Tokyo and you are invited to party with the locals. When you walk in, you look around for someone to talk to, but you aren't sure where to start. You feel a bit out of place because you look different, you come from a different country, and your Japanese isn't the best. You hope someone comes up to you to break the ice so you can enjoy the party, but people are already busy talking within their own bubbles to people they already know. You are feeling anxious and thinking about leaving, until you muster up the courage to mingle with the other party guests. Before you know it, you've met several people; some are a bit cold or don't understand what you're saying, but surprisingly you also realize there are many guests who actually speak English and have lots in common with you! Living with a disability can feel very similar to that scenario. Using the party metaphor above, sometimes you'll be lucky enough to have a friendly party guest come up to you to start a conversation and introduce you to all their friends. However, many times you have to take the lead.
For me, personally, I have the unique experience of having both a visible disability and being from a foreign country. As a six-year-old from Mongolia, born with Cerebral Palsy and relocating to the United States (Little Rock, Arkansas at that!), I often felt out of place, almost like an alien with people gawking at my Asian features, the way I walked, and the language I spoke. Like the party-goer in the scenario above, I was put in many situations where I had to decide if I would be the one to break the ice or wait for someone else to do it for me. Peers at school could sometimes be even more unforgiving or unaccommodating.
If you come across somebody who looked or acted out of the ordinary, think honestly about what might go through your mind. Would you keep to yourself to avoid an awkward situation, or would you be like the party host bridging that gap so that everybody could have a good time?
When the average person encounters someone with a disability, whether it is visible or not, they may have some preconceived notions about that person. Here are some common ones and some tips on how to avoid them.
Misconception #1: People with disabilities cannot hold a conversation.
When you have a disability you often get used to people avoiding having casual conversations with you. For people of all abilities, you can break the ice yourself by saying hello, giving that person a genuine compliment (no fakeness please!), or even just asking about the weather. Doing this can help let others know you are friendly, open, and more than capable of having a conversation. Even in situations where a disability can make communication a challenge, many people still appreciate the effort and the kind gesture of reaching out.
Misconception #2: People with disabilities don't think it's awkward when you stare.
When you have a disability, you are likely no stranger to all the stares from people you encounter. Even though we may be "used to it," it doesn't always make it less awkward. Empathy can work wonders in this situation for both parties. In my opinion, those with disabilities can be realistic that their differences will draw attention to others, and choose to be upset, or they can use the situation as an opportunity to represent themselves in a positive light or educate those who are genuinely interested in learning.
Misconception #3: People with disabilities cannot speak for themselves.
When you have a disability, you are likely used to people talking over you or assuming you are incapable of speaking for yourself. While things might be better nowadays due to greater awareness, education, and advocacy, this still happens on occasion. If you are a person with a disability and you experience this, you may be tempted to give those people a taste of their own medicine. However, it is often more effective to take the high road. For those encountering someone with a disability, it can help to speak directly to those individuals, be patient, and wait for a response. If you are caught in an awkward situation where you are still unable to understand each other, remember to remain kind, and gently let the person know you are having difficulty understanding.
With some patience and a good attitude, it can become even more possible for people with disabilities and those who are typically-abled to learn from each other and enjoy each other's company.
Be creative, stay positive, and try to meet in the middle.