You may have noticed that the Champaign-Urbana community has a surprisingly large population of individuals with physical disabilities. There are a handful of reasons for this: the University of Illinois is world famous for being at the forefront of accessibility, home to an incredibly prestigious wheelchair sports program, and a little mecca of civilization in the wide-open midwest. That said, unless you (literally) never leave your house, you will, at some point, come into contact with an individual with a disability. Whether it’s in class, at a bar, or just on the sidewalk, it’s going to happen.
What should you do? What should you say? There are lots of articles online with very descriptive titles that claim to help you with this dilemma. Articles like “How to Interact with People who Have Disabilities” or “10 Mistakes that Hurt Blind People the Most.” Some of them have worthwhile bits of information, but most are completely outdated or full of nonsense tips like “If you’re pushing someone in a wheelchair, never let go! They might get a blister!” (What up, Cosmo?)
But NEVER FEAR. As a self-proclaimed expert on the subject, or at least an expert wheelchair user, I’m here to take the guesswork out of these interactions for you. And, because it seems to be the most popular format, I will present my guide to you in list form. Be aware that my descriptions will contain a micro-aggression or two, to better illustrate my point. If you’re particularly sensitive to such things, you probably shouldn’t be reading this anyway.
Don’t ask personal questions
You lock eyes with someone from across the bar at Esquire, saunter over to them, suggestively motion towards their reproductive parts, and ask “so…does it work?” This is a surefire way to get a drink thrown in your face. Asking someone you just met if they can have sex is WILDLY inappropriate in every situation I can think of. However, for some reason, people think this is a totally legit conversation starter when speaking to someone with a disability. It isn’t. And if you ask someone that, I guarantee they’re not going to want to bone you.
No cheap nicknames
New scenario: You’re working on a class project at Kopi, and temporarily forget the name of the African-American girl in your group. What’s a terrible way to get her attention? Probably saying something like “Hey, dark chocolate!” Unless you know a person and their sense of humor, calling an amputee “Peg-leg” or hollering to a person in a wheelchair that they better slow down before they get a speeding ticket, is likely to go over just as poorly. They’re lame jokes, they’ve been told countless times, and continuing to single out individuals by their disability is doing nothing to break the stigma.
Don’t touch people, or their stuff
No one would ever walk up to a random person at the Urbana farmers’ market and grab their bags out of their hands or give them a shove on the back under the guise of “helping.” It’s fine and it’s nice to help people. Just ask first. If someone looks like they’re struggling, ask if you can give them a hand with something. They may decline your offer. In this case, the proper response is NOT to proceed with helping them anyway. If someone doesn’t want your help, they probably don’t need it. If someone doesn’t look like they need help, why are you asking anyway?
Unnecessary dramatic gestures make you look ridiculous
If someone is following you into the Undergrad Library, it would be polite to hold the door for them rather than letting it slam in their face. It would be a little silly to hurl an armload of books, a fresh coffee, and your first-born child into the bushes to make a mad dash across the street because you see someone approaching it in your peripheral vision. Similarly, it’s a nice gesture to step to the side if someone is passing you on the sidewalk. It’s obnoxious and completely over-the-top to theatrically shove whomever you are walking with out of the way and yell something like “WATCH OUT!” when you see someone coming around the corner ahead of you. (These sorts of things happen on campus more than you might think. It’s ridiculous every time.)
Stop making assumptions
Individuals with disabilities know their abilities and limitations better than you. If you’re planning an event or doing an activity with someone who has a physical disability and aren’t sure what kinds of things they can and can’t do, just ask. Asking a person in a wheelchair if they’re okay with high-top tables at Black Dog or pushing through the grass West Side Park is completely inoffensive, and will likely alleviate a lot of anxiety on your part. You’re not going to cause an existential crisis by subtly reminding someone that they can’t walk. They already know that.
Treat them like normal people
That’s it. That’s the rule that all of this was leading to. If you wouldn't do something when interacting with an able-bodied person, chances are you shouldn’t do it when interacting with a person who has a physical disability.