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What if I say the wrong thing?

When I first started working with organizations that help people with disabilities I remember feeling a little nervous about meeting the people they served. I didn’t know anyone with disabilities. What if I said the wrong thing? Do I need to communicate differently? What if I offended somebody? In general I consider myself to have a high level of empathy and I was trying to put myself in another’s shoes and figure out how I would want to be treated. I was having difficulty doing this.

According to the US Census Bureau in 2012, 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. This would mean we likely all have a friend or family member with a disability. I struggled to think of someone I knew. I racked my brain but I couldn’t come up with anyone.

Then it hit me: my dad had polio. One of his legs is severely shorter, thinner and weaker than the other. He was in a wheelchair as a boy, he buys two different sized shoes and he walks with a pronounced limp. It never occurred to me he would be considered to have a disability….he was always just my dad. Polio rarely entered my thoughts. The only time it did is if someone asked me, “what happened to your dad?” To which I would respond, “what do you mean?” Because polio was never at the front of my mind, I didn’t understand what they were asking. When they asked, ‘why does he walk like that’….then I realized they were referring to his limp. ‘oh, he had polio’. I never looked at my dad and thought about polio. I never ‘saw’ him limping. I always just saw my dad. Polio was never anything he focused on and it was never something that kept him from doing things he wanted to do.


That was my ‘lightbulb moment’. I will think about people I meet the same way I thought about my dad. My dad was just my dad. He was many things—a dad, a husband, a brother, an engineer. Among other things he liked white water rafting, watching 60 minutes and Ritz Crackers.

‘Polio’ was not the most important thing about my dad. Neither are any of the disabilities of the people I meet. I focus on the individual. Just as my dad’s likes and dislikes varied, so do the people I meet. They have a wide variety of skills, interests, and personalities. Their disability is just one of the many characteristics they have.

After thinking about this with my dad in mind I was no longer nervous. I extend the same courtesies and behaviors I would to anyone I met. I don’t make assumptions (a good rule that can be applied to everything!). I’m not afraid to make a mistake. I expect differences of opinions. I’m respectful and if I don’t know what to do or say, I ask.

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