How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
“It’s so good to see you without your cane!”
I’ve heard this before, and it hurts every time. My cane isn’t something that’s going anywhere, and if it helps support me, why should it? Am I somehow less than if I’m using it?
I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic, lifelong connective tissue disorder. For me, it results in instability, poor balance and coordination, and chronic pain.
There are some days when I do need or want to use my cane. But those days aren’t any less beautiful, and I’d hope you’re still excited to see me.
Disabled people are tired of hearing the same offensive microaggressions — the everyday, often unintentional insults that come from a lack of awareness around a marginalized person’s lived experience — like these over and over again from able-bodied people.
These hurtful statements can be avoided, though, with a little education.
That’s why Danielle Perez — a stand-up comedian, actress, amputee, and wheelchair user — was invited to speak about five phrases she (and many other disabled people) are tired of hearing in this episode of “MTV Decoded.”
1. ‘How do you have sex?’
This is a common question people with physical disabilities are on the receiving end of. People with disabilities date, have romantic partners, and have sex, just like everyone else. But able-bodied people seldom see this depicted in popular culture and make assumptions instead.
This question assumes only able-bodied people can be attractive or sexy, or that it’s sad, shameful, or painful for people with disabilities to have sex. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
“This stereotype tends to disproportionately impact physically disabled folks, especially folks who regularly use mobility aids or wheelchairs, like me,” Danielle adds.
Disabled folks can and do have sex, and like anybody else, the details are personal and none of your business.
2. ‘You don’t look disabled.’
This statement is problematic for a few different reasons.
Some people try to use it as a compliment, saying that the fact someone doesn’t appear disabled is a positive thing. But it’s not a compliment, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with looking — and being — disabled. When you suggest otherwise, it can feel as though you’re talking down to someone.
“I’ve actually had people tell me I’m ‘too pretty’ to be in a wheelchair. Rude! I’m pretty and use a wheelchair,” Danielle says.
Simply put? Don’t erase our disabilities just because it makes you feel better.
Other people use this phrase as an accusation, which assumes that disabilities you can’t see are less serious or entirely illegitimate. But people with physical disabilities might not need mobility aids consistently, and seeing someone in a wheelchair stand up or use their legs doesn’t mean they don’t need a wheelchair.
Mobility aid use can fluctuate for people with physical disabilities. I use a cane, but I don’t need it every single day; it helps when I’m in pain or need more stability and balance. Just because I’m out without my cane doesn’t mean my disability is fake.
3. ‘I know someone with your disability, and something that helped them was…’
As Danielle points out, this phrase assumes every person with a particular disability will be helped in the same way.
But disabilities aren’t a monolith, and you can’t assume someone else’s lived experience will be relevant to another person’s just because they share a disability or chronic condition.
Even two people with the exact same condition can experience their disability (and their treatment) very differently. So, rather than offering unsolicited advice, leave the medical decisions up to the person who lives in that body and knows it best.
4. ‘I wish there were a cure for you.’
You might, but do they? Not every disabled person wants or needs to be cured, and the suggestion that they should feel that way makes disabled people — and by extension, their bodies and even identities — seem like a problem that needs to be “fixed.”
But there’s a pretty good chance the disabled person you’re speaking with doesn’t share that feeling. In fact, many disabled folks have concerns around access to care and to the world around them that far exceed their concerns about their bodies.
“This [cure] mentality assumes disability is a burden and places the onus on disabled people to fix themselves rather than considering the ways we as a society could make our world more inclusive,” Danielle says.
Education, media, and infrastructure are all designed to service the same people: able-bodied people. But focusing on inclusive design benefits everyone. So why not prioritize that instead?
5. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Disabled people are people. We can be sick or disabled and happy, and anything in between.
We experience a range of emotions. Save your apologies and sadness for when that’s what the person you’re talking with actually needs and wants from you.
If you’ve said any of these things, it doesn’t make you a terrible person. We all make mistakes. And now that you’ve educated yourself on these common microaggressions, it’s a mistake you can make sure you don’t repeat.
So, the next time you see me without my cane, treat me the same way you would if I don’t have it. Compliment my long purple coat or my Betsey Johnson phone purse, ask me how my cats are, or talk to me about books. That’s all I ever really want, cane or no cane: To be treated like I’m me.
Alaina Leary is an editor, social media manager, and writer from Boston, Massachusetts. She’s currently the assistant editor of Equally Wed Magazine and a social media editor for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.