The past few months have been challenging for all of us, but perhaps more so for those with disabilities and their families. I am excited to share insights from a good friend, Kate Bushey who teaches Special Education:
People with disabilities are just that, people. They have the same hopes and dreams that you and I have. They want to be accepted, they want to belong, they need to know they are important to others. They have interests just like you and me. They may have more narrow interests, or they could have such varied interests that you may feel like it is hard to connect with them. Some people you meet may have hidden disabilities like a traumatic brain injury, psychiatric disabilities, or cystic fibrosis, as an example, and some may have more visible disabilities like Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or other disabilities that cause distinctive features, physical disabilities, or some neurological disabilities that cause tics or twitches of the body. It is not necessary to treat a person with a visible disability any differently than you treat a person with a hidden disability. So, what do you do when meeting and talking to a person with a disability? Here are some simple tips.
- Treat them like you would any other friend you are meeting (especially for the first time). Say hello. Tell them your name. Ask what their name is. Figure out what you have in common. This may require you to have a little bit more patience than if you are meeting someone who does not have a disability. You may have to wait for the person to process what you are saying. They may speak slower than your other friends, or they may use some alternative form of communication. You may have to think back to your childhood–they may be the same age as you, but enjoy matchbox cars and watching Scooby-Doo more than posting on Instagram and sending snaps to their friends. Even so, it is highly probable that you will find something in common with them.
- When speaking with them, do not speak louder and slower unless they have asked you to. If you are speaking to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, you may need to speak louder and slower, but if you are just meeting someone and you know that they have a disability, don’t speak louder and slower. This will not help them understand you any better, and it will only make them less likely to continue a friendship with you. This is demoralizing. Don’t do it.
- Be patient. If you have not been friends with someone for a long time and they have sensory sensitivities (think autism spectrum disorders), be patient with them when you are out in public together. If they are an adult, it is likely that they have some coping skills to deal with sensory overload. It is likely that they may communicate this with you; let them do what they need to do in order to enjoy their time with you. If they happen to have a meltdown (or if you are with a child who is having a meltdown) don’t abandon them. Sit with them. Ask if there is anything you can do to help. They may not be able to tell you anything that may help, but don’t freak out. These are fleeting moments in time. You may feel like the meltdown is lasting forever, but it really isn’t. After the meltdown, be attentive and empathetic if they want to talk about it. They may not want to; you don’t have to pressure them.
- Use person-first language (my friend with autism, my friend with Down syndrome). Don’t refer to them as my autistic friend, my Down syndrome friend, or anything in that vein.Eventually, as you grow in friendship, this should not be an issue, because you would call your friend by name. People with disabilities are not defined by their disability.
- Enjoy them. Being friends with someone with a disability will most likely provide you with a different perspective on the world. You will learn so much from them if you only take the time to get to know them. People with disabilities may give us deeper insight into the heart of God. Afterall, Genesis 1:28 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Make no mistake that you will see God in your interactions with people who have disabilities. Enjoy it, and enjoy them.