A little perspective on what proper disability etiquette is
A couple of weeks ago I attended a meeting where students were talking about their desire to spread disability awareness and educate others about “proper disability etiquette.” I started to wonder if there is such a thing and concluded that there isn’t. Throughout my time in leadership and my interactions with people similarly situated as myself, there is a huge desire for disabled individuals to be treated the same as any other person. But are they treated any differently, and if so, who’s responsible for causing such treatment? I would suggest that the cause of such different treatment falls squarely on the disabled community.
Someone once introduced the principle of “person first” language to me because I had never heard it before and when they explained it to me, I thought it was a lost proposition. But why? The idea behind “person first” language is that disabilities are merely characteristics of individuals, and so when you refer to a person with an impairment, you are supposed to refer to them as a person with a disability instead of a disabled person. As a result, you put the person BEFORE their disability. Granted, it sounds better but it falls short in practice.
Consider this: if the objective is to de-emphasize a persons disability and tell everyone that you are a person first, and then in the same breath you tell everyone that if you are going to refer to them, you are to refer to them as a person with a disability, they have just contradicted themselves. If we say that disabilities are mere characteristics and then turn around and distinguish ourselves based on that characteristic by being so particular about the order of words, we have indirectly emphasized what we are trying to de-emphasize.
So then the question becomes, who is really the one who is looking at who differently? Further, if our goal is to be looked at as people and a disability is only a characteristic, why mention it in the first place?
Hair color is a characteristic, but nobody refers to somebody as a person with brown hair and uses it as a dispositive description of who they are as people. In essence, “person first” language is a counter-productive method to cover up a characteristic that we as disabled people give more weight than necessary and then project it in such a way that we believe it’s really society that looks at us differently. Some in society may look at us differently simply because of the way we appear or because of the challenges we face, but nobody will look at us as people until we do. Therefore, if there is a line between us, it is in large part because we drew it ourselves. If “person first” language is good for one thing, it is placing a barrier in between normal communication between a disabled person and one without a disability. This is because instead of looking at a disabled person and wondering things like “I wonder what his name is”, it turns into “how am I supposed to refer to this person without offending them”? In that case, the potential for any kind of interaction is sharply diminished. In the end, person first language only covers up a sensitivity that has yet to be dealt with and thus is a personal, not societal problem. It is easy to try and push such a narrative because people try and be so politically correct, but life is not fair and it is not easy. The question is not what you call it, it is what are you going to do with it? Disabled people don’t like to be called disabled but why do we call it that? It’s because it is the name society gave us and it’s not going anywhere. But does that even matter? No, I am a person and only a person because that’s who I chose to be. Society doesn't get to choose what we do with our lives and dictate how we turn out, we do. Moreover, the real world is not so PC so instead of trying to use “person first” language to cover the obvious up, why not focus on how we will respond to it? The use of such approach will inevitably lead to the demise of disabled individuals because their expectations as applied in the “real world” are unrealistic. Adapt, don’t accommodate.
Then disabled people go on to suggest that people are mean to them, say offensive things, and should interact with them in such a specific way. Again, the ball falls in the disabled communities court. The simple fact is that people will interact with others the way that they interact with them. Disabled people will also paint their own destiny based on the way that they conduct themselves with others. Generally, people do not understand things until they have to come face to face with them. People will not inherently know what the effects of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and multiple other disabilities just as they will not be aware of the devastating effects of cancer or Alzheimer’s disease until they’ve known somebody who’s had it. Why would they? I think it is also arguable that disabled individual’s perspective on life and their knowledge about their own disabilities would be drastically different if they didn’t have them. In such a case, disabled people have the obligation to explain what challenges they face when asked. Disabled people want people to understand but seem unwilling to express the information that will help with that understanding because requests are viewed as assaults on their abilities instead of simple inquiries. If somebody is willing to take that step and ask the question of how we ended up in the situation we are in and then a disabled person gets offended simply because they didn't like the delivery, the chance of understanding is lost. Moreover, as we all do, when we are scarred by events and interactions with others, we take that single instance and extrapolate that instance and apply it to an entire class of people, accurate or not. This is our defense mechanism. We will be offended and lash out because of a simple inquiry and thus turn people away. Again, disabled people will paint their own picture and should tread lightly. People don’t know everything and do their best to learn, so disabled people should give them that chance by taking a step back and asking themselves whether the question asked is meant to be insulting or a mere inquiry.
Disabled people will also make lists of what they find to be acceptable and unacceptable conduct for non-disabled individuals. There is no question that disabled people are proud of their independence because it takes longer to earn, but that doesn’t mean we can take shots at people for just trying to help. Some disabled people don’t like others to open doors for them or offer assistance in some cases, and some do. The problem with the idea of disability etiquette is that it varies from one person to another. What is acceptable to one is unacceptable to another and there is no way to know where you stand. Therefore, the only standard that should be used when dealing with disabled people is within the bounds of common courtesy and decency. You have no obligation to open doors for anyone or assist in any form or fashion, but when you do, you should be appreciated. So here’s the rule, if you go out and open a door for somebody with a disability and they do not acknowledge you in any way, let go of the door. If it hits them, it hits them and they will get the message that it is THEIR conduct that is unacceptable. Disabled people cannot hold others to a higher standard than they hold themselves and if they truly desire to be treated like all others, they should conduct themselves in the same fashion or bear the consequences for failing to do so. Therefore, if the proposition of disability etiquette does in fact exist, it goes both ways and the responsibility seems to be weighted more heavily on the disabled community. Again in this situation, any division line that is drawn is drawn by us based on the way we treat and interact with others.
Still, there are some who will inevitably struggle with interacting with disabled people. For those that do, consider this: look at your friends and those you love. Ask yourself why you like them and why they mean so much to you. Do you like them because they can hear, speak, or walk? Did you fall in love with them because they have all four, fully functional limbs? Or was it because of the way they make you feel? That they make you laugh and there is some inherent quality that made the decision that they were worth it? The simple fact of life is that it changes in ways that we are not ready for and we don’t get to choose. If such an event were to occur and a person you know became disabled in some form or fashion, do you like or love them any less? Do they become any less of a friend? Do they make you laugh any less? Do they become any less of a mother or father? If the answer to these questions is yes, you have learned something about yourself. If the answer is no, then why interact with a disabled person any differently? You like and love the people in your life because of inherent qualities, not physical ones – so why not give others the same focus and opportunity? There is no doubt that there are just some people in life that we do not like for one reason or another and we cannot possibly like everyone because we are not saints. But before you make the decision that you don’t like someone or can’t interact with someone, you should ask yourself why that is the case and if such a determination is justified in relation to the people you do interact with. The ultimate point is that disabled people have the same ambitions and desires as everyone else. We aspire to have friends, a family of our own, and great careers to live a meaningful, happy life. The catch is that we must conduct ourselves in a way that others also desire to interact with us. In order to do so, we must quit differentiating ourselves based on futile characteristics, remove the self-imposed social barriers, and treat people the way we want to be treated.
In sum, there is no such thing as disability etiquette; there is only a general principle of common courtesy and decency. If we are to accept the idea of disability etiquette, the responsibility is ours and not yours. We will paint our own destiny, but we will not rise or fall together because we can choose not to. Ultimately, it is time to raise the bar and expectations towards disabled individuals as they, and they alone, control their own destiny.
Colin Bober is an OU law student and a disabled individual with cerebral palsy. He was the president of the Association of Students with Disabilities on campus for 2 years.