Robert Hoge wrote a great piece at The Guardian last month called “Don’ts’ aren’t helping: here’s five things you can say to someone with a disability”. Instead of focusing on the wrong things to say to someone with a disability, he focuses on some easy tips that can smooth over conversation with people we do not know who has a visible impairment. He has some great suggestions, but I would put them in a slightly different order.

Article image of Tony Abbott with empowerment advocate John McKenna with article heading at the top.

He starts the list at the start: “Hello, hi, g’day, how are you?” People with a disability generally appreciated being treated the same as everyone else. We don’t particularly enjoy being stared at, ignored or have unnecessary attention lavished on us. It is always a good idea to talk to the person, not the visible aspect of their impairment.

He also states that “Would you like a hand with that?” is a good question. People with different impairments and different personalities and preferences tend to respond differently to an offer of assistance, but no matter how someone reacts, there is nothing wrong with offering to help. Don’t be offended if the offer is declined and try not to jump in and help without asking.

“Tell me about yourself”. People with disabilities are more than their impairment. They have hobbies, families, jobs, careers, interests, talents and passions. Getting to know someone is often a much more rewarding experience and can make it much easier to see past a disability and just engage with someone as a fellow human being.

Another suggestion is asking about their disability directly by saying: “Can you tell me about your circumstances/disability?” It isn’t easy to talk about disability and many people do not feel comfortable going into personal details about it with someone they do not know. In addition, many people with a disability feel that it is not their duty to educate other people and would just like to go about their day in a normal fashion without being asked, sometimes multiple times in a row, to explain what their impairment is and how it affects them. If you ask, I wouldn’t recommend doing so early on in a casual conversation. Once you have talked for a while and feel like you are getting to know someone and like them, then ask. If they decline to answer, respect that and if they choose to share, just listen. Don’t think about how to respond correctly, just listen.

The last is “I think you’re very inspiring”. Once you have asked someone about themselves, have listened to them explain how their disability affect their lives, telling someone they are inspiring is okay. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. As the article says: “People with a disability don’t feel inspirational just because we’re getting on with our lives. It’s not our job to make you feel a warm glow for telling us so.” I think this is a great response when said simply and sincerely. Please don’t add how you wouldn’t be able to cope or you couldn’t imagine how terrible it must be or pity us.

Many people have hidden impairments that may not be obvious. Don’t assume that there is an “us” and a “them”. Pay a little closer attention to the people around you and be a little kinder. If someone is struggling, offer to help whether they are five or eighty-five, in a wheelchair or seem fit and capable, male or female, but don’t jump in (or not) based on assumptions. Communication becomes much easier when we check our preconceptions at the door and treat everyone with the same level of respect. Show an interest in someone else and talking across boundaries become a lot easier.

Source: “Don’ts’ aren’t helping: here’s five things you can say to someone with a disability” by Robert Hoge,