One in four U.S. adults has a disability, making it the largest minority group in the country. In spite of how common disabilities are, disabled people still deal with ignorance, stigma, exclusion and lack of accessibility on a regular basis.
It’s not just systemic obstacles and callous or thoughtless behavior from strangers that disabled people have to navigate. Sometimes, it’s people they know — like friends, colleagues and acquaintances — who mean well but ultimately miss the mark.
We asked disabled people to share what they wish the nondisabled people in their lives knew or understood. (Note that many in the disabled community prefer to use identity-first language rather than person-first language — e.g., saying “an autistic man” instead of “a man with autism” — so that’s what’s used here for the most part. Other folks prefer person-first language, as they don’t consider their disability an inherent part of who they are. When in doubt, follow the individual’s lead and ask them their preference if you aren’t sure.)
1. Being disabled isn’t a bad thing — what’s bad is the way people treat me.
“I wish my nondisabled friends knew the hardest part about being disabled isn’t my disability itself. It’s the way society treats you because of it that’s most challenging. We live in a world that is inaccessible and doesn’t prioritize the inclusion of people with disabilities. When you look at me, I want you to see my disability and all that comes with it. Disability isn’t a bad thing. It’s a natural part of the human condition.” — Ola Ojewumi, patient advocate, writer and founder of Project Ascend
2. “Disabled” isn’t a bad word, so don’t be afraid to say it.
“Nondisabled members of society have been socialized to feel incredibly uncomfortable around disability. It starts when children, with all their beautiful, curious, innocent wonder at all things in the world, look inquisitively towards someone with a disability, and their adults take this wonderful learning opportunity and squander it on a brief admonishment that it’s rude to stare. The silent implication is that they should just pretend that the disabled person doesn’t exist. If the child asks a disabled person a question about their disability, the child is quickly scolded by their caregiver for being so rude. Those children grow into adults who can’t bear to think about, talk about, or acknowledge disability. People aren’t even comfortable saying the word ‘disabled,’ instead choosing to say ‘handicapable,’ or ‘differently abled.’
People also often use words like ‘special needs’ to describe people with developmental disabilities such as autism or Down syndrome. But ‘special’ would be if I always needed to eat dragon eggs for breakfast. ‘Special’ would be if I always needed to sleep in a tree. I need employment, I need love and support and acceptance, and I need to be invited to the diversity and inclusion table. Those are human needs. There isn’t anything ‘special’ about them.” — Mickey Rowe, actor, director and public speaker
3. Don’t exclude me from plans just because you think I won’t be able to participate.
“It’s natural for people to assume that I can’t do something because of my height, but I’m always up for trying anything new and going on any adventure. In 2019 alone, I traveled independently to over 30 U.S. cities.” —Becky Curran Kekula, motivational speaker
4. But give me some grace if I end up needing to cancel.
“Having a disability that limits my involvement in things is dreadfully isolating, and it’s all too easy to feel forgotten or ignored because people stop thinking to include me. The flip side of this one, however, is please don’t get angry or guilt-trip me if I have to decline or cancel at the last minute; I promise I’m more upset about it than you are.” — Shayla Maas, host of the podcast “Tips and Tricks on How to Be Sick”
5. I don’t need your quick fix (and I’ve probably heard it before).
“I’ve heard of and tried everything you could possibly suggest: yoga, hot yoga, acupuncture, chiropractors, CBD, the list goes on. Casual, prescriptive fixes aren’t helpful. Before you tell a disabled person about your great idea to fix them, remember that if there actually was a quick fix, we would have done it by now. Disabled people are the experts in living in our own bodies and navigating our own conditions.
If you have a genuine suggestion, ask first if they want to hear it. If the answer is no, learn to accept and respect that your disabled friend really does know best.” — Sara Youngblood Gregory, sex, kink and culture writer
6. It’s OK to laugh sometimes.
“This is a case of knowing your friend, but for me personally, I feel much more comfortable when I’m with people who are able to laugh off the occasional awkwardness caused by my hearing loss. Sometimes I mispronounce common words; sometimes someone asks me a question and I hear something wildly different; and sometimes someone will say something that I didn’t catch and I’ll say the exact same thing a moment later. Pretending it didn’t happen makes it more awkward (I can usually sense something is up). It’s much better to gently point out the confusion or mistake and then laugh about it with me.” — Kelly Dougher-Krinsky, writer
7. There’s more to me than just my disability.
“I am a person before my disability. I have been referred to in some social situations as ‘that blind girl.’ This can be upsetting, as I am many things before my blindness and it does not define me. My name is Steph. I am a wife, sister, operations assistant for a consulting firm. I love shopping, horse riding, ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ and I just happen to be blind.” — Steph Agnew, disability consultant
8. Telling me I’m “inspirational” for just living my life isn’t a compliment.
“Disabled people are not your inspiration. Being inspired by us just because you see us living life while being disabled is ableist. Disabled people are capable of doing many things. Yes, our disability can make it hard for us to do certain things, but that does not mean we are limited in living life.” — Nila Morton, model and disability advocate
9. Speak about me to other people like you would your other friends.
“It’s not always necessary to include that I’m a little person when you tell other people stories about our friendship. Our friendship exists because we have more in common than differences.” — Becky Curran Kekula
10. It’s OK to ask if I need help ― but don’t just take over.
“If I say no, step back. If I say yes, do the thing you’ve offered without making it seem like it’s weird, even if it’s not something you’d expect to be asked to help with by a nondisabled person — such as pushing a wheelchair or assisting with medical stuff of any kind. I appreciate your help more than you know, and it makes me feel like I’m just a normal person when you help me out and you don’t make it a thing. Maybe my life doesn’t look like everyone else’s, but it’s normal for me and I am grateful when you treat it that way, too.” — Shayla Maas
“Being inspired by us just because you see us living life while being disabled is ableist.”
– Nila Morton, model and disability advocate
11. Saying you wouldn’t date a disabled person is offensive and ableist.
“Nondisabled people are quick to say they don’t want to date a disabled person because we are ‘too much.’ Disabled people do not depend on their partners nor need their partner to take care of us. To be honest, in any relationship, you should want to be there for your partner and help take care of them. Anyone can be too much; nondisabled people can be too much. Stop using our disability as an excuse, admit your ableism. Disabled people deserve to be loved also.” — Nila Morton
12. A positive attitude isn’t going to ‘fix’ my disability.
“In the U.S., we’re taught a lot about the power of positivity, even if that positivity is unrealistic or harmful. This ‘you can do anything you set your mind to’ attitude should not be applied to disability. For most of us, there is no ‘getting better.’ Rather than expecting or encouraging a good attitude, try practicing empathy and compassion instead. Acknowledge the very real limits — physical, mental, institutional — that exist for disabled people. Remember that attitudes and bodies aren’t something to be fixed, ableism is.” ― Sara Youngblood Gregory
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.