It happens all the time. We take in visual data and make a thousand mental leaps in a split second. From those mental leaps we often assume we know something about each other, and just as often that assumption lands us both in trouble.
When it comes to people with disabilites, the process works like this: many (though not all) of us present with visible indicators that a disability is in play, whether those indicators are behaviors or assistive devices. I’m stunned at how often people see these indicators of disability and assume that respectful social pleasantries are lost on the person who has a disability. We still appreciate politeness. We still deserve respect.
The issue of mistaken assumptions, however, goes further than politeness. For purposes of this post, I wish I had kept a running tally of all the people throughout my lifetime who have seen my wheelchair and assumed my speech and hearing didn’t work. That would be a very high number. (“The leg bone’s connected to the voice box” must be from the long lost version of that old song, I guess.) For purposes of enjoying my life, I’m glad I haven’t kept up that count.
Instead of resting on your inevitable, split-second assumptions, I ask you to try the following:
If you want/need to know if a person who has a disability needs help with something, just ask. Many people with disabilities are more than able to tell you what they need, and it would be relatively rare for you to meet a person lacking expressive language skills in a community setting without either a companion or device to assist them in answering your inquiry. And I promise…no one knows better what assistance each person who has a disability needs than that person him or herself.
After you ask if we need help, please trust the answer. Specifically, this request may be challenging for you, if we say we don’t need help but still appear to be struggling. While I would never suggest that you watch someone with a disability struggle with a task without offering to help, if the person declines your offer, let it go. You are then free to assume (barring evidence that the refusal is a case of life-or-death stubbornness) that the person has the situation under control.
If we say we don’t need help, obviously, there is some reason we have chosen the difficulty of indepence over the ease of assistance. It might be as simple as needing to prove to ourselves that we can do what we need to do for ourselves. That may sound insignificant, but it isn’t.