Creating Connections Through Thoughtful Comments, Questions
When talking to strangers with disabilities, be respectful and kind
I tend to attract attention while out in public. It’s not really because I behave in a way that draws attention. It’s just that people in wheelchairs toting a menagerie of medical equipment and an entourage are highly noticeable, whether we want to be or not. Ironically, we stand out in a crowd even if we can’t actually stand.
While many strangers in public settings don’t engage beyond a polite greeting, if they engage at all, some will strike up a conversation, ask a question, or offer a passing comment.
I appreciate any effort to connect and learn. Sometimes, though, the well-intended things that people say leave me, and anyone by my side, shaking our heads. Having a visible disability like SMA can be a catalyst for some interesting conversation starters.
There’s usually nothing wrong with the comments or questions it prompts, but I’m often left wondering how my disability affects the things others choose to say to me.
In the past, I’ve written about how to greet someone with a disability, and today, I’d like to expand on how best to engage in conversation with a disabled person. My hope in doing so is to help people understand and become more comfortable with building connections through thoughtful conversation.
Food for thought
When I consider some of the most common things strangers say to me while I’m out and about, I realize that many of them are related to my wheelchair.
“Do you have a license for that thing?”
“Slow down or you’ll get a ticket!”
Again, there’s really nothing wrong with these comments. Although I’ve heard them many times, I don’t mind them. People who say these things are probably being kind, and that effort should be acknowledged and returned.
Even so, I can’t help but notice that no one would likely comment on my forward momentum down the sidewalk if not for the fact that I am a wheelchair user. That’s not to say that wheelchairs can’t or shouldn’t be conversation starters, but I wonder if there might be a different approach that more people would be comfortable with.
What if, instead of commenting on a person’s driving, we offered a compliment on the actual wheelchair?
Many of us extensively customize our wheelchairs for comfort and functionality, but we also personalize and decorate them. There are all sorts of features that could be complimented such as paint colors, stickers and decals, or patterned seat covers.
This approach would be no different than complimenting someone’s outfit, which generally makes people smile and feel seen in a positive way. Personally, I would be ecstatic to have someone notice that the color of my wheelchair is meant to resemble that of the TARDIS, the blue police box time machine from “Doctor Who.”
Another common way for people to start conversations with my family and me is to ask questions about my disability. Generally, I welcome and encourage questions, especially from curious children. Questions can serve as a gateway for education, advocacy, and friendship.
One question that does bother my loved ones and me is when people ask what’s wrong with me. No one means harm by asking it, but it stings to be reminded that society’s default mindset tends to be that disabled people are somehow broken or incomplete instead of readily recognizing that our bodies are simply unique.
With their permission, it’s perfectly fine to ask someone about their disability, but it’s important to be thoughtful about the phrasing and respectful if they decline to answer. Remember that even when you’ve broached the topic politely, you are asking people to divulge personal medical information, which not everyone will be comfortable sharing.
Conversation and communication are natural parts of social interaction, and being humans, it’s something that we don’t always execute as well as we could, myself included. If you’ve ever found yourself saying anything I’ve mentioned in this column, don’t sweat it. Use this as a tool to help you improve and keep trying.
Regardless of who we talk to and what we talk about, what matters most is that we’ve made an effort to acknowledge the people we cross paths with by speaking kindly to them. Maybe the things we say will even brighten their day and bring a smile to their face.
Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.