It’s important to remember that someone may not look like they have a disability on the outside but may have a disability that you’re unaware of. According to the Invisible Disabilities Association website everything from mental health issues, to learning disabilities, to hearing and vision impairments is an invisible disability. Here are the ten things you should never say to a person with an invisible disability so that you can live and work with people with disabilities, in the most effective and understanding manner possible.
1. “You Don’t Seem Disabled”
Not only does that statement imply a lack of understanding in terms of what the word “disability” actually means but it also implies that someone’s disability is invalid/ non-existent.
People with disabilities strive to be treated, and have as much opportunity as everyone else. They have worked very hard to make their voices heard at work, in their social lives, and in academic institutions. Although this may seem like a compliment it’s not really; it’s a statement that sweeps whatever symptoms of a disability an individual possesses under the carpet.
2. “You're An Inspiration!”
This perception of disabilities is everywhere, and is constantly spreading like a mega infectious virus. Unfortunately society likes to put people who are a bit “different,” and have persevered despite whatever makes them “different” on a pedestal. Although the people who say this often have good intentions this statement is both patronizing and insulting.
In order to understand what makes this statement so insulting let’s take a second to think about what you’re “really” saying when you tell someone with a disability that they’re an inspiration. “You’re an inspiration,” implies that disabilities serve no other purpose beyond inspiring others to do whatever they do with their lives. Keep in mind that inspiring others, for no other reason beyond the fact that they happen to have a disability is most likely not their intention; they just want to live, love, and have their disability be treated the same as someone’s favorite (or least favorite) movie, food, or color.
3. “My cousin (boyfriend, friend, grandparent, parents, etc) has the same disability and they found a specific coping method useful so I’m sure you will too!”
Someone else you know might have the same disability, but so do plenty of other people worldwide. Babies are born with disabilities everyday, and people with diverse disabilities are students at every school and employees at every workplace worldwide. Although symptoms are often extremely similar, personalities, values, and experiences vary slightly so never assume that everyone is the same or that they will react the same to a suggested coping method. Always remember that they know how to do their thing not someone else’s thing.
4. “Why don't you just learn to blend in with the rest of us?”
Try “blending in” while having a learning disability, hearing or sight impairment, physical disability, or mental health issue. It’s possible but there will inevitably be some struggles along the way. Instead of pressuring someone with a disability to blend in with everyone else do a bit of research, in your own time, in order to find out more about how it effects the work they do on a daily basis. If you’re unsure never be afraid to ask them questions because it shows that you’re at least making an effort to understand them, and accept them for who they really are.
5. “It’s all in Your Head”
This statement is a lot more common with mental health issues, but it sometimes comes up in conversations with people who have other invisible disabilities as well. It’s not all in their head, it’s very, very real and in order to live amongst, work with, and genuinely understand a person with an invisible disability it’s important to accept that. If it doesn’t seem real or serious it’s most likely a testament to the coping methods they’ve developed over time, in order to get by in everyday life.
6. “Are you Sure You Don't Need Help With That?”
This is okay in moderation but never assume that someone’s disability implies that they will always need your help with things. You don’t need to help them unless they ask you for help, or show really obvious signs of struggling with something. If you want to effectively love, work with, and live with people with invisible disabilities get to know their routine struggles.
7. “But I thought that people with disabilities couldn’t do that"
With patience and practice people with disabilities can find a way to do whatever they put their mind to. Popular events such as the Paralympics reminds us that it’s possible to decrease limitations on what people with disabilities can and can’t do. A crucial part of living with a disability is finding coping methods, for the sake of survival, therefore people with any kind of disability get use to constant adaptation, very early on in their lives.
8. “I have (insert a specific symptom of an invisible disability here) maybe I have a disability too!”
Unless a medical professional gave you a formal diagnosis, and you have multiple symptoms of a specific disability, or you’re a medical professional, occupational therapist, or a qualified expert this isn’t a valid assumption. It’s important to keep in mind that despite the fact the person you’re talking to has whatever disability you think you have they’re most likely not a credible source/expert; well maybe they are, but they likely aren’t. Because peoples’ experiences with disabilities vary based on where they grow up and various other life experiences there’s always more to learn about what it really means to have a specific disability.
9. “For a (Insert Invisible disability name here) Person you Are Really Smart, Fast, Pretty, etc…”
There are so many negative stereotypes out there about disabilities. One-minute people with a limited perspective on disabilities are calling someone that happens to have a disability an ’inspiration’, and the next minute they’re in awe of the level of physical beauty or intelligence that someone has despite their disability. This is a dangerous point of view we need to put an end to because disabilities are like everything from gender to sexuality; they don’t fit into nice, neat, comfortable, little boxes. It’s also extremely insulting for whomever the comment is directed towards.
10. “Your Disability isn’t Nearly as Serious as Person x: They're in a Wheelchair!”
This one is most common in institutions such as workplaces, schools, and even parking spaces designated for people with disabilities, because people feel the need to quantify, and evaluate how much help someone is entitled to, based on how they appear on the outside. You can do this with things that can easily be evaluated, based on quantity and quality, such as money, objects, and buildings but disabilities can’t be evaluated quantitatively or based on appearance without overlooking what’s really going on. Evaluating disabilities based on how much better or worse they are than someone else’s disability isn’t a good idea because everyone is struggling with something, and everyone needs help with something.
Always remember that the word disability has numerous meanings. Next time you see someone parking their car in a spot designated for people with disability, that seems to be standing on their own two feet just fine, without a cane or wheelchair, or someone you least expected tells you that they have some sort of disability, always remember that people with disabilities have varying strengths and weaknesses. If you’re not sure if someone has a disability, what it’s really like living with their disability, and how you can help, ask questions and people may surprise you in terms of the challenges and triumphs they’ve faced throughout their life.