What NOT to Say to Disabled People at Work

The question “what do you say to disabled people?” should not be a question that needs asking.

Disabled people don’t type “what do you say to able-bodied people?” into Google. Why would they? (I’ve just tried it, the results were fascinating).

It is estimated that approximately 15% of people across the globe have some form of impairment. That percentage is, probably, much higher than many people believe. Especially when we consider the levels of disability awareness and acceptance most of us experience.

If you spoke to disabled people around the world, you’d notice that they all have at least one thing in common. They all have numerous stories of being asked strange questions, experiencing inappropriate comments, or being judged purely on the basis that they are disabled. You see, non-people are often so caught up by disabled people’s differences that they forget the individual side of things.

Thanks to stereotypes, people often have visions of what disabled people look like, sound like, do, go and, even, think. Stereotypes teach us what disabled people’s IQs are like, our abilities (or lack of), our interests, and the list goes on.

But, in reality, every single person with an impairment is different. Aside from the impairment, speaking to a disabled person should be no different from speaking to a non-disabled person.

Yet, some of the things said to us, would never be said to a non-disabled person. The presumptions, assumptions and intrigue are simply not as prevalent.

It is important to remember, if you work with a disabled person, you are working with an individual. They are simply a person, like yourself, with an identity (away from the impairment) and they are your colleague on merit not just to tick a box.

13 Things Not to Say to Disabled People at Work

What happened to you?/ What’s wrong with you? 

Don’t get us wrong; lots of disabled people are happy to spread awareness of disability by sharing their story. However, these two questions are rude and unlikely to be conducive to a positive conversation.

For example, if I were to be asked these questions, my answers would be “I was born” and “absolutely nothing”.

However, if I am asked about my impairment in a curious yet positive manner, I will happily tell you. “I have Cerebral Palsy due to a lack of oxygen at birth, and this simply means that my muscles don’t always work they ordinarily would”. See the difference?

You don’t look disabled

In the same way no two people are the same, no two impairments are the same. There is no standard impairment “look”. People with Autism, for example, may look “non-disabled” but that doesn’t mean they do not have an impairment. Not all disabled people use wheelchairs.

You are so inspirational/amazing

Imagine, for a second, getting out your car to get on with your day and someone saying, “well done! You’re amazing!” Or imagine doing the most mundane, boring, things in the world and being told you’re inspirational.

Just like non-disabled people, some disabled people do some amazing and inspirational things. However, if they are just getting on with they’re job or life, there is no need to make it into something it isn’t.

Clever girl/boy!

Personally, I get this a lot. I have a First Class Degree and a Masters Degree.

Think about this for a second. If any other colleague completed every day, standard tasks, would you tap them on their shoulder and say, “aren’t you clever!” in the same way you would do to a child? Probably not.

Never underestimate the intelligence and awareness of a disabled person. This is something that happens more often than you’d think.

If you have a colleague with an impairment, it is safe to assume that their intelligence and awareness is on par with yourself.

It must be so hard for you!

There are two things to consider if you find yourself wanting to say this:

  •  If the person has been disabled since birth, then life is what it is. Chances are, it is not as hard as you think. In the same way you (possibly) learned to walk as a child, the person will have learned to do everything else. Disabled people, in general, are fantastic problem solvers. We may not do things in the same ways as others, but this doesn’t necessarily mean everything is hard.
  • If the person has acquired an impairment, is it appropriate to point out that their life might be harder than yours?

I know how you feel (about having an impairment) 

Again, there are two things to consider if you find yourself wanting to say this:

  • Do you? In what sense? Think about this before speaking.
  • I (the author of this post) have had Cerebral Palsy since birth. I genuinely don’t know how it feels not to have my impairment. But at the same time, I don’t know how it feels to have anyone else’s impairment either. For me to say otherwise would be untrue and unnecessary.

I have a disabled friend/uncle/brother/grandma/book club buddy – do you know them?

If someone has an impairment, they are not immediately introduced to every other disabled person within a 50-mile radius.

Ask yourself if there is any reason, other than being disabled, your colleague might know this person.

I’ll pray for you.

While well-intended, this could be taken the wrong way. Your colleague may feel like you’re saying, “there is something wrong with you; you must be fixed”. Some disabled people don’t want to be “fixed” – acceptance and awareness is the aim of the game.

If praying for people is what you do, then, by all means, go ahead. But be aware of how you tell the person and how they might feel about it.

Are you a Paralympian?

Are all non-disabled people Olympians? No.

The increased interest in the Paralympics is terrific. But only 1% of disabled people (maybe even less) are Paralympians.

You’re quite talented, considering.

Considering what?

Not all impairments affect intelligence or brain function. This is a prevalent misconception.

As with number 4, if you have a colleague with an impairment, it is safe to assume that their intelligence and awareness is on par with yourself.

You won’t be able to do that.

Never assume you know what your colleague can or cannot do especially if you don’t know them that well. As I mentioned in number 5, above, disabled people, in general, are fantastic problem solvers. We may not do things in the same ways as others, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do things.

Who is to say your disabled colleague hasn’t found a better way of doing something than you have?

Do you have any special powers/special abilities?

This is a question frequently posed to people on the autistic spectrum. The idea that people with Autism have “special abilities” comes from TV shows and films, such as ‘The Good Doctor’ and ‘Rain Man’.

Put simply, not everyone on the autistic spectrum has a so-called unique ability. It is inadvisable to base your knowledge of impairments on fictional characters.

‘I understand…’ (guessing what people say) Or ‘I can’t understand you’ (then moving on)

If your colleague has a speech impairment, the chances are they are well versed in repeating what they say to ensure they are understood. Speaking from personal experience, they would rather repeat themselves five times than have someone guess what they are saying.

Imagine if you guessed wrong and they were suggesting something you were fundamentally opposed to, but you said “yes” because you didn’t take the extra 5 seconds to clarify.