People with disabilities are in every profession, including the arts. Disabled artists cope with everything every other artist copes with, in addition to worrying about access to venues and stages, reluctance to hire a person with an obvious disability, and of course, audience prejudices and misunderstanding.
It is natural be curious about disabilities, especially ones you do not have. Some people do not wish to talk about their disability, while others do not mind questions about it. But there are things no disabled adult wants to hear you say:
“You can’t tell you have it.”
Every disability is not apparent to other people. Some disabilities only impact a person’s emotional or cognitive functioning in a way that is not immediately clear. Others only impact their physical functioning in a way that is not immediately obvious. This does not mean the person does not have a disability. If someone wants to know if a limp or a tremor or their anxiety or depression is noticeable to you, they will ask you.
The best response if you are a disabled artist and get this line is, “Well, I certainly can.”
“But you’re pretty/handsome.”
The person told you they had a disability, not the one combination of features and coloring that everyone in the entire world would find unappealing. Having a disability means having mental and/or physical issues that are not routinely faced by the general population. It has nothing to do with what anyone else’s opinion of their looks might be.
This is one I have never gotten. If you are disabled and anyone says this to you, tell them to go watch “Breaking Bad,” then look it up online and read some of the comments girls leave about actor RJ Mitte. He plays the son of the main character on the show, is a celebrity crush for a lot of people, and has Cerebral Palsy both on the show and in real life.
“Was your school a special school?”
Some disabled people face difficulties that prevent them from attending classes at traditional schools. Others do not. Never assume that someone was in special education classes or could not attend a traditional school simply because they have a disability.
Someone actually asked me this after I told them I earned my degree back in 2003. I told them I thought it was a pretty special place. It was graduate school. I hold a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing and Literature.
“So, you’re drawing disability.”
Supplemental income for people with disabilities does exist, but you cannot get it simply by showing up to the right building and announcing you have a disability. Getting disability can be a long, complicated process for many, and some disabled people are never on disability at all.
When I was born, my parents were told I had Cerebral Palsy. I was treated for it for twenty-eight years. At age 28, I applied for disability when walking around looking for a job worsened my balance and pain issues so much, I couldn’t make it through a day.
I was then told that I do not have Cerebral Palsy after all. But either way, I still have a left foot that has been at least partially paralyzed since birth, and muscles in my left leg and arm that did not grow correctly. My foot and leg hurt a lot. I often have a tremor in my hand and weakness in that arm. I have terrible balance and coordination. And I have never received a disability payment in my life. I shared that information because I want to. If someone else does not care to talk about their finances with strangers, they are allowed to make that choice, regardless of their disability.
“That must be because of your disability.”
Everything that happens to someone with a disability, or that might be wrong with someone with a disability, is not necessarily caused by their disability. You can be disabled and have a plain bad day, a completely separate health problem, or an issue in your life that has nothing to do with your disability.
Some people feel called to educate others on the specific symptoms of their disability. Others do not. If someone makes this assumption about you because of a disability, you can explain things, but it is also acceptable to politely brush them off.
“Would you like to play in the bounce house with the kids?”
Never assume that someone has childlike thought processes simply because they have a disability. This is especially true of those who have strictly physical disabilities and/or emotional impairments. It is entirely possible to be physically disabled and not have your intellect impaired at all.
Physicist Stephen Hawking had severe physical disabilities due to ALS that prevented him from walking, moving, or talking without the aid of a computer. He was also among the smartest people in the world. John W. Quinn is a motivational speaker and advocate for others with Cerebral Palsy. He’s also a Navy veteran. We have even had a disabled president. (That would be FDR).
“Do you need a ride?” (or any other assistance you think they might need.
Don’t take that one too literally. Anyone who does not have a car, or whose car is in the shop, may legitimately need a ride someplace sometime. The point here is to avoid assuming the person is prevented from carrying out plans due to their disability.
Disabled people were disabled before they met you. If the person knew how to get around without driving themselves, were able to move themselves in a wheelchair, or could get into their house or car on their own then, they can do it now. While it’s always polite to hold a door, offer to help with an awkward or heavy package, or allow someone to get past you whether they are disabled or not, avoid assuming you need to step in and provide care to someone just because they have a disability.
Responding with a firm, “I can handle things,” is appropriate in situations like this.
“Are you looking for your Mom?”
Disabled adults whose impairments do not prevent them from taking care of themselves in public are allowed to be out in public on their own. They are not children. If someone is disabled in such a way that causes them to need their parent or another caregiver to monitor them at all times, that person will be there.
I almost did need someone to step in and take care of me..for a panic attack and near fall…from someone making the assumption that I need a caretaker in a rather startling way. In the tiny town where I used to live, rumors went around that because of my limp, I did indeed have intellectual impairments.
One afternoon, I had gone along with my mother to the grocery store. She was on her way there, and I wanted some fruit, so I tagged along. Once inside, she went to get the items on her list, and I went to look at the mangoes. As I was scanning the shelf for one that wasn’t still green, the face of woman I knew only as a customer from work appeared directly in mine.
“Are you looking for your Mom?” she yelled very slowly into my face. Needless to say, that was most unexpected, causing me to teeter backwards a bit.
“Are you looking for your Mom?” The near stranger yelled into my face again. This time I just stared at her in shock at the complete inappropriateness of her behavior.
“She’s right there!” The woman bellowed,grabbing my shoulder with one hand and pointing her entire other arm out in front of her to indicate my mother picking out a cantaloupe in the next aisle. “She’s…right….there!”
At that point I turned and ran. I hope someone stepped in to help that poor woman with whatever caused her inability to develop social graces.
“You’re such an inspiration.”
Disabled people are coping with the issues they have, just like you. A person does not need to be told they’re an inspiration for being in a wheel chair, walking with a limp, battling poor balance, coping with chronic pain, or managing any other symptoms of their disability any more than you need to be told you’re an inspiration for continuing to go out to dinner when you have diabetes or a nut allergy, or getting allergy shots so you can enjoy picnics and walks this summer.
I honestly have not gotten this one either. But I know a lot of disabled people do. They smile and say “Thank you,” because that’s what you do when someone says something patronizing that they should know better than to say.