One Thursday evening, my grad schoolbook publicity professor and I met at a cafe to talk about upcoming assignments and life after grad school. Afterward, we headed to class.
We got into an elevator together to get to the second floor. Another person got on the elevator with us. He glanced at my lavender cane and asked, “What happened?”
I mumbled something about the fact that I have a disability called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and my professor jumped in: “Isn’t it such a cute cane? I really love the color.” Then she switched topics quickly and we talked about how I should evaluate benefits packages when I’m deciding about a job offer.
When I’m using my cane, I get questions like this all the time. One afternoon in a Target checkout line, it was, “Did you break your toe?” which I thought was an oddly specific question considering I didn’t have crutches or a cast.
Another time it was, “What’s that thing for?”
People with disabilities are often seen first and foremost by our disabilities, especially if they’re visible.
Disability advocate and founder of Diverse Matters, Yasmin Sheikh, explains that before she started using a wheelchair, people would ask her what she did for work. “People now ask me, ‘Do you work?’”
“How would you feel if people [chose to] push you around without asking, speak on your behalf, or speak to your friend instead of you?” she asks.
According to the World Health Organization,
Disability is the largest minority group, but we’re often not recognized as one — we aren’t included in many definitions of diversity even though we bring disability culture and perspective to every community we’re part of.
“When we talk about diversity, disability is rarely mentioned,” Yasmin says. “It’s as if disabled people are such [a] distinct group of people [who are] not part of the mainstream and therefore not fully included in society.”
Instead of asking disabled people what happened to us, nondisabled people need to ask themselves: Why am I centering on this person’s disability instead of the full picture of who they are?
Most of the media we interact with that includes disabled people only portrays disability in a limiting light. “Beauty and the Beast,” which is a story many kids are introduced to at a young age, is all about how an arrogant prince is cursed to appear as a beast until someone falls in love with him.
“What message does that send?” Yasmin asks. “That if you have some kind of facial disfigurement, that’s associated with punishment and bad behavior?”
Many media representations of other disabilities are steeped in stereotypes and myths, casting disabled people either as villains or as objects of pity. Disabled characters’ entire story revolves around their disability, like Will, the protagonist in “Me Before You” who would rather end his life than live as a quadriplegic who uses a wheelchair.
Modern day films “tend to look at disabled people as objects of pity and their disability is all-consuming,” says Yasmin. People might brush off these criticisms, saying that this is Hollywood and everyone knows these films aren’t an accurate depiction of real life.
“I believe that these messages plant seeds in our subconscious and conscious minds,” she says. “My interactions with strangers are largely about the chair.”
She gives a few examples: Do you have a license for that thing? Don’t run over my toes! Do you need help? Are you okay?
The problem may start with how the media portrays disability, but we all have the option to reframe our thinking. We can change how we see disability, and then advocate for more accurate media representation and educate the people around us.
Instead of asking us about our disability and assuming that our disability is the most important thing about us, reach out for similarities. Find a connection between the two of us.
Ask us the same things you might ask a nondisabled person — whether it’s a bland exchange in an elevator about the weather or a more personal interaction at a networking event.
Don’t assume that we have nothing in common just because I’m disabled and you aren’t, or that I don’t have a full life outside of being a cane user.
Don’t ask me what happened to me or why I have my cane.
Ask me where I got the dress I’m wearing with rainbow books all over it. Ask me what other colors I’ve dyed my hair. Ask me what I’m reading currently. Ask me where I live. Ask me about my cats (please, I’m dying to talk about how cute they are). Ask me how my day was.
Disabled people are just like you — and we have so much to offer.
Instead of looking only at how we’re different, connect with us and find out all the cool things we have in common.
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.