The Art of Conversation: Tips to Get the Disability Conversation Started

Published August 17, 2020

It's time to celebrate and converse a lot

This year the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is celebrating its 30th anniversary! Much progress has been made! Many companies have a good understanding of disability in the workplace and have made plans to celebrate by addressing at least one disability hot topic: mental health, digital accessibility, reasonable accommodations, emotional support animals, or interactive dialogue. However, many struggle to address disability, let alone have a conversation with someone with a disability. Here are tips to begin this conversation.

"End the awkward"

On the internet is a brilliant and amusing British advertising campaign by Scope. It captures the "awkward" that exists when interacting with people with disabilities. This statement shone brightly: "New research shows that two-thirds of British people feel uncomfortable or awkward talking to somebody who is disabled. A fear of seeming patronizing or saying the wrong thing causes people to worry about what they say around those with a disability.” Wow! There it is out loud.

Many Americans likely feel the same. In the situation they wish they were knowledgeable and comfortable having conversations with people who have disabilities, or perhaps a wish to be one of the fastest "Gen Z’ers on earth" able to navigate Google search in milliseconds. Yet, if neither, there they the awkward.

In reality, a quick Google search isn't a bad idea. A search for "disability etiquette" will provide a wealth of information on what to do and not do.

Knowing about disability etiquette is important, because saying the "wrong thing" can cause collateral damage leading to negative feelings such as irritation, mistrust, and in these days, even the threat of being sued. Truth is, conversations do not have to be awkward. Contrary to popular belief, communicating with people with disabilities is not complicated. You don’t have to memorize dos and don’ts or pay for a course teaching how to communicate and understand people seemingly unlike yourself.

People with disabilities want to be treated with respect, valued, heard, and most of all accepted. They want to be treated as you want to be treated.

Watch Scope's incredibly funny videos on how to "End the Awkward".

Knowing why it matters

According to the CDC, 1 out of every 5 adults has a disability. Over a billion people (15% of the world's population) have some form of disability. In fact, people with disabilities are the third largest underrepresented minority group. Add to this increasing rates of disabilities due to age, increased chronic health conditions, trauma, war, and socioeconomic factors, the likelihood of interacting with a person with a disability is very high. Knowing the art of initiating conversations about disability is essential to your education and success regarding your interaction with people with disabilities.

As a person with a disability myself, and being a special education teacher, disability director at a university, and having years of practice talking with people with disabilities daily, I have learned the art of this conversation. It is this: listen, be interested, learn about, and respect the person in front of you. Sound too simple? Still unsure?

Myths about disability dispelled

  1. You do not have to mention a person’s disability, unless it’s relevant to the conversation.
  2. You may not always understand someone right away. Sometimes, it is actually refreshing to hear someone say, "I don’t know? I’m not understanding yet. Keep talking to me. I’m getting it. I’m slow, but I’ll get there."
  3. You may not say things exactly right, but it does not have to be the end of the world. Share this, "I’m not perfect. I do not always say things exactly right. If I say the wrong thing let me know and teach me a better way."
  4. Many people with disabilities are able to feel within themselves, competent, and capable. With respect for their feelings, you realize you are a part of the continuum of their lives. Interacting with people with disabilities often requires a perspective change on the part of the person without the disability. You may offer your services. If your services are needed, they will likely let you know.
  5. Many people with disabilities live wonderful, meaningful lives. Be interested in who they are and their story! Show interest in projects they are working on. Listen to their current plans and goals. Discover requests they have that enable you to best serve them.

In summary

We are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Millions of persons with disabilities and those assisting them have made great progress in ways to better serve those for whom the ADA was passed by Congress. As we go forward with increased understanding and ever improving methodologies in human relations, our work continues necessary and joyfully.

In truth, all of us are just people. When we come to the place where we see the person, rather than the disability, our own disability of not seeing the whole person will be on the mend! Let us together continue the momentum of ADA with confidence and begin having meaningful conversations and interactions with the people whom it serves.