On Saturday September 13th The Guardian ran an article by the Australian writer Robert Hoge, under the title "Don'ts Aren't Helping; Here's Five Things You Can Say To Someone with a Disability". As I read through the piece I found myself growing ever more shocked and angry, as the advice contained in the piece was so wide of the mark if anyone actually followed it the reaction they get may well be negative, at the least!.
The piece revolves around the concept that when trying to confront the issue of talking to disabled people the advice is always negative, always a list of "don't"s and rarely "do"s. Mr Hoge then states that most of these are the opinion of the authors and then gives a list that he states are things "you can say to someone with a disability". However I would say that four out the five in his list are rather wide of the mark.
Before I explain why I feel I should point out that as well as being a disabled journalist and broadcaster, I run highly successful and sort after disability awareness and equality training sessions, which contain a section on this very issue. So this isn't just an example of "what I think" but comes from my own professional training, which itself stems from years of discussion within the disabled community that led to a consensus on the correct use of language when it comes to disability. I also always use a positive approach but highlight language that is incorrect. Do call me a "wheelchair user", but not "wheelchair bound" or I do "have paraplegia", I do not "suffer from paraplegia".
Mr Hoge's piece start's off sensibly enough, explaining how some people can find talking to disabled people a worry and how always being negative can cause people to just avoid talking to us all together. He continues sensibly with the advice to just say "Hello, hi, g'day, how are you?". It is stunning that some people need to be told that its OK to say hello to a disabled person but sadly there still are some out there that fall at this first hurdle. So far, so good....
The next phrase on Mr Hoge's "do" list is "Can you tell me about your circumstances/disability?". In other words "What happened to you?" or "What's wrong with you?". He explains that this is OK, as long as the questioner is prepared to accept silence. Wrong! It is NEVER OK to ask about someone's disability. Why? Well for every disabled person who is in a place where they can answer this question there are just as many who are not. This is the kind of question that could really harm a person's mental health and so it is always best to avoid it, no matter how hard you feel you need to know. In my training I explain that it is best to wait until the disabled person offers up their story, as this empowers them and ensures they are psychologically happy to do so.
Next in Mr Hoge's list is "Would you like a hand with that?". He states he doesn't mind if people ask if he needs help, but so many disabled people do. They live a life feeling disempowered and so having total strangers come up ask if they can help is top of their list of things to say when you see them. If you do attempt this, I warn you to be just as prepared to be met with out right anger as a polite "no thank you". Surely the best approach is that if you see anyone struggling to do something offer to help, not because they are disabled but because you are a human being.
Mr Hoge then excels himself, with number 4 in his list "I think you are very inspiring". I should say that Mr Hoge does try to explain that this is a subject for debate, but remember this is a list of things TO say to disabled people. Trust me this is a sore point within the disabled community. For every disabled person who is OK with the concept of being inspirational, there are way more who find the whole concept so offensive they will not be able to control their frustrations and you will get it in the neck. Disabled people are not there to make you feel better about your life, especially if you then go on to do nothing about improving the lot of the very people you claim inspire you. Trust me, just avoid number 4 entirely.
Number 5 comes across as kind of weird, "Tell me about yourself"? Is this something you'd say to any other person you'd meet in day to day life? So why say it to a disabled person? Sure, at some point in a conversation you might ask "What do you do?" or "Where do you live?" but "Tell me about yourself"? You'd just sound creepy.
This article makes so many fundamental mistakes as it is based on the idea that it is OK to treat disabled people differently when you meet them. Just because disabled people might be outside of your experience it doesn't mean we are different from you. My list of "do"s when talking to any disabled person is easy; "Talk to them just like anyone else you meet". Also if you have to think "Is this OK?" before you say something, best to avoid it.
Before I sign off I will admit this might be a cultural issue. Different countries approach disability very differently, both in their attitude towards it and how they express this in language. I don't have any experience of being disabled in Australia so I would be interested in hearing how the Australian disabled community feel about the piece. However if you are based in the UK please ignore Mr Hoge's article. If you follow much of his advice you may cause serious offense, and you may even end up in a raging row.
Picture by Doralba Picerno use by permission