5 Things Your Disabled Friend Probably Hates
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Chances are you know someone with a disability. I don't just mean people who use a wheelchair. I'm also referring to your mates who have anxiety. Your friend with endometriosis. Your pal with chronic pain.
We all know someone whose experience of day to day life is perhaps outside the norm. And for the most part, we simply adapt to that. We get used to the way they operate, and often we forget about their disability entirely.
Thing is, YOU may be able to forget about their disability. But for the most part, a disabled person often can't. With that in mind, here are five things you probably do without realizing that might be pushing away your disabled friend.
1. You stop inviting them after their disability prevents them attending
You're throwing a party, and you've invited all your friends. The afternoon of the party, your friend texts you. "Hey, I'm really not feeling well today. The usual stuff. I'm so sorry. I'll make it up to you." You're frustrated. Maybe you reply "OK." Short. Curt. The next time you throw a party, you don't bother inviting them because they're probably not going to show up anyway, right?
See, the thing is, this is usually rooted in one of two misconceptions about disability. Either you don't really believe your friend when they talk about their illness, or you hold them responsible for having a flare up. In fact, neither of these is particularly helpful. A disabled person cannot control their disability, and they're probably even more gutted than you that they had a flare up on the day of such an important event. Try to take a step back and consider it from their perspective. How would you want to be treated if you fell ill suddenly before a major event? Work through your frustration before you reply, and be open. "Hey, I'm sorry to hear you're not feeling well. That's such a shame, because I was really looking forward to having you there. Is there anything I can do that might help? Or do you want to catch up later in the week when you're feeling better?".
This expresses your disappointment without blaming them for their disability, and opens a dialogue about how to move forward. They can choose whether to offer a compromise (E. G."I can come for dinner but I'm not well enough to cope with clubbing afterwards") or whether to make it up to you later within a defined time frame ("I'm free Saturday, I'll rest up and be ready for coffee and lunch!"). The goal is not for you to hide how you feel, your friend knows you're disappointed to not see them. The key is shifting the blame to the disability, rather than the disabled person, so that you can work together rather than against each other.
2. You don't check accessibility before you book
You get to the venue, and start climbing the stairs to the restaurant. You hear a voice behind you ask "Excuse me, where's the lift?". You turn to see your friend who uses a wheelchair being told that they don't have a lift. They look disappointed. The door staff offer to carry them up the stairs. You're embarrassed and hurriedly encourage them to go ahead. Your friend looks uncomfortable, and arrives in the restaurant embarrassed, frustrated and subdued.
This is sadly all too common for those of us who use a wheelchair. People invite us places without thinking, only to arrive and realise we can't actually get in. This usually leads to solutions such as carrying, which are actually hugely uncomfortable, dangerous and even painful for a lot of wheelchair users.
To avoid this, check the venue before you book. Call them and ask about wheelchair access. If their answer involves carrying, rather than a ramp or lift, go somewhere else. It's five minutes that saves a lot of pain and embarrassment, and could do your friendship the world of good.
3. You say "can't you just do it this ONE time?" or "You didn't need X that one time".
Accepting your friend's disability doesn't just mean knowing it exists. It means understanding the impact it has on them and respecting their limits. It's not as simple as just "powering through"; something which is simple for you as an abled person may well be impossible for them. Be careful of holding other people to your own norms and standards. Just as your disabled friend is better at some things than you are, recognize the fact that the "simple" thing you're asking may not be so simple outside of your own experience.
The same goes for comparing the current situation to previous situations where your friend's level of ability was different. It's incredibly common for disabled people to experience fluctuations in the effects of their condition(s), and many have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, and even good and bad months or years. An excellent analogy
that floats around in disability discourse is the example of: if you ask someone to hold their breath for 5 seconds, they probably can. If you ask them to scuba dive without breathing equipment, they probably can't. Holding their breath will also be harder if they've just been running, or if they have a cold or asthma. The point is, our ability to carry out tasks varies from day-to-day, and depending on the circumstances, all the damn time. If you can understand this, you can understand that something your friend could do a week ago might not be within their capability now with their current symptoms.
4. You ditch them when they're too slow
"Hey, do you mind holding my bag while I go do this? It won't take long." "Why don't you wait here while we go do that? We'll be back soon" "It's probably going to take you a while to do that, so we'll do a different thing and catch you up."
Sound familiar? For people with mobility issues, this is all too real and frequent. Sure, the intention is good, but it quickly becomes irritating when you're expected to follow along behind your friends and keep up, but as soon as you're slower they leave you holding the bags while they have fun at twice your speed. Leaving a friend out in a social situation is usually seen as a really awful thing to do, so why is it considered so much more acceptable when that friend has limited mobility?
The first thing to do is to ask yourself "would I be making this suggestion to a non-disabled friend?". If the answer is no, it's important to examine why you think it's okay to treat your disabled friend differently. Are you making it easier for them at their request? Or are you acting on your own impatience. Self-awareness is key when it comes to improving our behaviour towards marginalized identities, and disability is no exception. Show your friend the patience you would want to be shown yourself. And whatever you do, do not treat them as a human storage locker. Getting around with a mobility aid is hard enough without factoring in other people's bags and jackets.
5. You use their disability as an excuse
You make a flippant comment without really thinking. Your friend with depression calls you out on it. Instead of taking the time to reflect, you counter with "chill out bro. You're so sensitive!". Everyone laughs.
For someone with mental illness, this is all too common. Their perceived "sensitivity" is used a catch all for the insensitivity of others, and this goes largely unchallenged due to conditioned stigma surrounding mental health. Take a step back when you are called out, and examine the situation beyond your knee-jerk response. Could you have done better? Would you have responded differently to being called out by a non-disabled friend?
It's important to mention also that this kind of subtle criticism of those with mental illness for being "too sensitive" or "fragile" also contributes hugely to the social isolation many experience, and can prevent them from reaching out to talk when they're struggling for fear of receiving a similar response again. Flippant comments can have deep impacts, and this is a behaviour that does far more harm than good.
Things to think about
In summary, it's important to be aware of how much our society allows us to get away with when interaction with disabled folx, and how harmful these behaviours can be to your interpersonal relationships and to your friends personally. The key is to be reflexive and open to understanding. When your friends call you out, try not to respond out of defensiveness, and instead try to listen to and understand their perspectives. Often it takes a lot of courage to stand up to your friends and tell them that what they're saying is hurtful, and usually it's a sign that your friend trusts you to hear them out. Don't waste this opportunity to demonstrate your respect and solidify your friendship. It can make all the difference both to your friendship and to building a society in which self-advocacy is much easier for disabled people.