You can’t really understand it until it happens to you, but there is a lot to think about when you live with a disability. I wouldn’t know if it hadn’t happened to me, but it did, so I am passing my wisdom onto you readers. There are a lot of misconceptions about disabled people, and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know everything, but I will share with you what I know. I don’t have a disability, but I live with someone who does. My dad has been blind for about eight years, and while I can still see, his disability is certainly something me and my family live with. I don’t begrudge helping him; in fact, for the most part, he is pretty self-sufficient. He cleans, washes laundry, listens to books, works out, reads stuff on the Internet, has lunch with friends, and does weekly visitations with church members. I cannot speak for everyone who is disabled or knows someone who is, but here are some of the biggest pet peeves when speaking/interacting with someone disabled.
1. It’s not funny.
Generally, it is not your place to comment of the difficulties of someone’s life. Basic human decency tells us not to assume we know about someone we’ve never met. If you don’t know them and we have no idea what they are going through it probably isn’t your place to comment. This comes in many forms, applies to laughing especially (also snickering or lingering looks of irritation).
Listen, I am the only person allowed to make fun of the fact that my dad is blind. Just me and my family, and while it’s kinda funny at the store to watch me run him into an endcap because I got distracted by something shiny, if you laugh or snicker, I will come and kick your ass. Guiding someone is extremely difficult. There are also so many things you take for granted that I have to explain. Stepping up or down is a whole different movement. Judging distances between clothes racks and aisles is hard and I often get it wrong. Yes, he has a cane, and he is more than capable of using it, but if I’m there, why would I let him. That being said, I often make mistakes (especially with distances) and have been known to run him into things. As J.M. Barrie said, “Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”
2. We don’t need your help, but we appreciate the offers.
We all know that feeling you get when you see someone and you want to offer help, but you do not want to overstep and invade their space. It is a kind gesture, and I appreciate it. Most of the time I don’t need your help, but it is always nice to have someone ask. Be aware that people are different, and some don’t want you to ask, but in my experience, the worst that can happen is for someone to say no.
My father is not the only person in the world who doesn’t like asking for help, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary. When dad first got sick, the idea that he would go anywhere without one of us was ridiculous, but as time went on we realized that was unreasonable. He doesn’t need a babysitter; he needed independence, and occasionally help. Unfortunately everyone needs help sometimes, disabled or not.
3. He is not Daredevil.
This is a pretty exclusive question, that only applies to blind people, but it is so weird to me that I have to include it. I know that would be so cool, and it would probably make life easier, but alas, that is not the case. In fact, with all the listening to things on headphones, my dad’s hearing isn’t great. Especially not in crowded restaurants, so when you ask what he likes to drink, speak loudly, and it’s OK if you ask me when you realize he can’t hear you. Also, Braille is a complex language, and like any language, without practice, you can’t learn it. You might not know it’s also cumbersome; it would take a wheelbarrow to carry a Braille Bible around, and then trying to find the right book in church would be hilarious. With the inventions of incredible technology—yes, my dad has an iPhone and yes, I know it’s weird—it’s no longer necessary for a lot of people to know Braille fluently and therefore can’t entertain you with his skills. Don’t ask.
4. No touching!
I feel like this is a general human taboo, but apparently some people haven’t gotten the message. If you don’t know someone, you shouldn’t touch them without permission. I get creeped out by people I know touching me or my stuff without asking. I feel bad for pregnant women who get their bellies rubbed in public all the time—not cool, people. One exception: The don’t-touch rule is overruled if something bad is happening. Please help someone if they are about to walk in front of a car, but otherwise keep your hands to yourself.
My dad doesn’t know you, and even if he does he can’t recognize the sound of your shoes. He doesn’t have your smell memorized and he can’t tell it’s you by your voice (most of the time). If you have met him before say, “Hi, it’s me ,*insert name here.* How’s it going?” or some such intro. He didn’t forget you because he doesn’t like you, it’s just a lot of info to store in his brain.
5. He’s not stupid.
This doesn’t just apply to someone who is disabled. Generally, it isn’t nice to assume anything about someone from the way they look. I would hate for someone to assume I have a low IQ because of my hair color or my accent. This rule should apply to everyone. I’d like to say we don’t judge people, but we all know that’s not true. You shouldn’t make assumptions about someone.
This might be the worst next to the laughing. If you have a question, ask, and if he doesn’t want to answer, he won’t. Don’t talk to me about him because I’ll just ignore you. And if we are in your way—two-by-two is cumbersome, I know—ask us to move and we gladly will, if we can. My dad is incredibly intelligent and likes talking to people, but he doesn’t like being talked about, so just don’t.
My experience is limited to my life, and I know these things are difficult to remember, but I appreciate it when my dad tells me about a nice stranger who helped him, or when my friend asks respectful questions. I know meeting a blind person is unlikely, and when I see someone besides my dad it takes me a minute to remember the rules. I promise there is no shame in trying to help, although I’ll probably tell you we’re fine. These rules can probably be used in general human contact as well, just some nice things to remember; I can see you, but I still might not remember your name.