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Don’t be Afraid of People with Disabilities
Disability fear is a topic that’s taboo and deep seated that many who feel it will either vehemently deny or not acknowledge that it exists. After all, who would admit they are afraid of someone who is of a different race or religion for fear of backlash much in the same way they would not admit they are afraid of disabilities; but as someone with a disability, the number of awkward looks, uncomfortable conversations, and nervous comments that I witness far too often are just some of the many signs of the fear many people carry about the disabled.
Below are some of the most common fears surrounding people with disabilities and how to cut through those fears by dispelling the myths and stereotypes that largely make up the uncomfortable feelings towards people who are differently-abled.
We are taught from a young age not to stare at things that are different, to look away at things that are ‘bad.’ We are inherently taught as children that disability must then be inherently a bad thing.
So many people grow up not asking questions or learning about disability and avoiding those who are different instead of having opportunities to learn about differences and build relationships with someone out of the ordinary.
These childhood experiences result in adults who are so afraid of offending someone by possibly saying the wrong thing or not wanting to ask hard questions that many would rather avoid people with disabilities instead of approaching and finding out for themselves that we are just like the rest of you.
Think about your best friends and acquaintances; what if you never took that first step? Think about all the great moments you would have missed out on!
Catching a disability
Avoidance often comes from an assortment of inner conflicts. Below are just a few reasons for avoidance behavior:
Lack of education
For many people, their only experience with disability is seeing someone very sick in a hospital or nursing home setting, so it can be difficult to relate to others outside of a medical facility who may look different or need mobility equipment to get around in their day to day lives.
Far too often the misconception that disability equals sickness permeates into our belief system. Disabilities are not contagious! You can approach someone in a wheelchair, shake a hearing impaired person’s hand and even hang out with an amputee without worrying about your own health.
Codependency and taking on responsibility
Have you ever been hesitant to socialize with someone with a disability?
Merriam-Webster defines codependency as “a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition.”
A common worry for some about making friends with someone who is differently abled is the belief that they will have to overcompensate and provide physical care for them.
Some common codependency myths include:
You will have to always help someone who is in a wheelchair get around.
You will have to constantly reach things or get things for people with are short stature.
You will feel obligated to drive someone around with a visual impairment.
You will need to be extra vigilant when around someone with a hearing impairment.
Is it easier to just avoid than build new relationships with someone different from yourself? Has even the possibility of having to help someone else become a terrifying reality? Dispel the myths for yourself! You will likely find that people with disabilities are fiercely independent, not to mention really good at asking for help when they need it and knowing how and when to ask.
Being judged by others
In our current world where we are obsessed with sharing our whole lives on social media, taking “selfies,” and developing our “personal brand” it’s no wonder that social anxiety and concern with being judged by our peers has skyrocketed in recent years.
After all, most of us want to put our best foot forward and project a positive image. While image isn’t everything, it has become an obsessive component of our culture. Wanting to look good believe it or not can permeate into our relationships and who we surround ourselves with.
Ask any high school kid and they will probably list “fitting in” as one of their primary social concerns. Graduating high school does not mean this desire to fit in go away. We all still want to sit at the popular table and sadly many of us believe that if we wear the right clothes and hang out with the right people it will help us get there.
We have been ingrained to deviate towards what’s popular, pretty, and socially accepted; not what’s different. So when the opportunity to interact with someone who is different presents itself, many of us do not know how to react.
As soon as you expand your social circle to include someone who may have a prosthetic limb, use sign language, or sits on top of wheels to get around, you will soon find that the differences that we are so afraid of melt away and at the core of all of us is just another guy or girl looking for some good people to hang with.
Other misconceptions about disability
Being unable to participate
As a kid in school who used a wheelchair in the late 80s and 90s, teachers were hesitant to allow me to participate in gym class, recess, or any physical activity for lots of different reasons, many of which I didn’t realize until many years later:
The fear that I would get hurt
Not knowing how to accommodate me in the game or activity
Worrying that the other kids wouldn’t know how to play with me
There were many times that I kept score during gym class or was told to do a separate, less active activity. These experiences often resulted in peers and classmates not having the opportunity to develop social experiences with someone who was differently abled. Unfortunately, this is a common experience for many people, not for any fault of their own, but simply because the able-bodied far outweigh those of us with disabilities so our experiences can often be limited.
Limited experiences, however, are the building blocks for stereotypes and misguided beliefs about people with disabilities such as:
Being unable to participate in activities
Not wanting to go out and do social activities
Not enjoying sports or outdoor activities
Not wanting to be invited to events on social outings
While accessibility can be challenge, it is no reason to not extend an invitation or suggest doing activities together with someone who may be differently abled than you.
Not knowing what to say
If you were like most kids, you probably remember a new kid in class or having an exchange student in high school. Like most kids you were probably wondering if you would have anything in common with the new student or even be able to communicate with them if they came from a different culture or country while the student himself or herself would love to make some new friends and share things in common with the other kids.
This is the experience for many people with disabilities. While we certainly may approach others who are able-bodied, those without disabilities may feel anxious that they will say the wrong thing or having nothing in common to talk about.
Here’s some tips for managing the unknown:
First and foremost, don’t worry that you may be saying the right thing or the wrong thing. Just take the first step, introduce yourself, and go from there.
Find common ground.
People with disabilities are just like everyone else – they have a favorite pizza topping, hobbies, loved ones, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Ask lots of questions and find something you have in common.
Extend an invite.
Don’t let worrying if someone with a disability might be able to participate with you or your group of friends stop you from extending a social invite. Often people with disabilities are excluded because people are afraid of asking if they will be able to or if the activity is accessible. Don’t be afraid – just ask!
Believing they won’t be able to keep up
In 2013 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 17.6% of people with a disability were employed.
Disability discrimination at work is extremely prevalent, not often discussed, and very hard to pinpoint.
Even though it is illegal to discriminate based on disability, job discrimination largely based upon an irrational fear of hiring someone who may do things differently still permeates throughout the business world today.
Common fears employers having about hiring someone with a disability:
Their inability to keep up with the work load.
They will miss work due to medical issues.
They will create more work for their employers.
They will not easily fit into the team.
While these fears are largely incorrect, many employers lack the support and education they need to successfully support employees with disabilities in the work place.
If you are an employer, here’s some things you can do:
Seek out the appropriate HR resources to get informed about hiring people with disabilities.
Talk with your facilities department to ensure your workplace is accessible and welcoming for everyone.
Hire with an objective eye and an unbiased opinion.
Research disability organizations in your area who can help education you about the Americans with Disabilities Act and provide support for your business.
Admitting the reality of being human
Disability is part of life just like birth, growth, sickness, and eventual death. For many of us, these can be tough topics to tackle. Meeting or interacting with someone with a disability can conjure up feelings of fear about these subjects for many people.
If this is the case for you, getting to know someone with a disability is perhaps the easiest way to get past the aversion of these challenging subjects! You will likely find that someone’s disability has not stopped them from achieving great things in life.
For example, just look at these famous people below! They all overcame challenges related to a disability and lived happy, full lives:
Have you ever found it difficult to socialize with someone who had a disability? Why or why not?
Are you someone with a disability who witnesses these fears from others? How do you react?
Share your own experiences in the comments below!