By Dana S. Dunn, PhD (Professor of Psychology and Assistant Dean for Special Projects, Moravian College)
One of my former students has muscular dystrophy. He uses a power wheelchair to get around. He tells me that it is not unusual for him to attract the interest of strangers when he is out and about with friends—in the mall, say, or in a restaurant. Invariably, someone will walk up to him and say something like, “Good for you for getting around!” or “Look at you! You’re doing your best to be normal” or words to that effect. Some folks even suggest he is some kind of “hero” for just going about his business. He is generally good-natured about people’s curiosity but sometimes it gets a little tiring being put up on someone else’s pedestal.
My former student isn’t the only disabled person who gets comments like these. Lots of people with disabilities get them all the time. Is there a problem? I think so. On the one hand, these casual observers are well-intentioned and just trying to be nice. On the other hand, however, they are treating disability as something extraordinary, like something that must be overcome each and every day (“You must be a hero in order to deal with that all the time!”). Of course, this sort of treatment is also condescending.
What many members of the general public fail to realize is that people’s disabilities are a fact of their lives, personal qualities, and very much a part of who they are. In other words, disability is familiar and part of their identities—its presence doesn’t make them particularly heroic, just as it doesn’t mean that their lives are a constant struggle, either. Disabled persons tend to focus on their disabilities only when they encounter social or environmental barriers, like overly curious onlookers or inaccessible buildings—both of which impede their progress.
Why do some nondisabled people feel the need to praise or offer words of unsolicited encouragement to people with disabilities? Very often because the presence of a disability, like many interpersonal distinctions or differences (consider race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation), makes some people uncomfortable. My old student is a good sport: He thinks that strangers are trying to be cheerful and friendly by highlighting something positive about disability (“you are trying so hard!”) while at the same time imagining difficulties they assume he must face while moving through life in a wheelchair.
What also may be going on is this: People who are unfamiliar with disability tend to view it as something acute (“becoming disabled”) rather than a chronic feature (“being disabled”) that is only one aspect of a disabled person’s experience. They don’t think about all of the other things that make up a person’s life, such as family, friends, career, hobbies, and so on.
So, if people with disabilities aren’t necessarily heroes, then who are they? Well, they’re people—like anyone else. How can nondisabled people avoid offering undue praise or drawing too much attention to a person’s disability?
Here are some basic rules of thumb for interacting with people with disabilities (adapted from Dunn, 2015, and Wright, 1983):
Curiosity is normal, but don’t ask about a disability unless the person with the disability brings it up in conversation.
Don’t talk about the disability unless he or she wishes to do so.
Don’t ask questions about a person’s disability immediately.
Don’t dwell on a disability; focus on the person.
Be polite and exercise common courtesy; treat people with a disability as you prefer to be treated.
In essence, put the person first—treat people with disabilities as people, not heroes.
Dunn, D. S. (2015). The social psychology of disability. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wright, B. A. (1983). Physical disability: A psychosocial approach. New York, NY: Harper & Row. doi: 10.1037/10589-000
Dana S. Dunn, a Professor of Psychology and Assistant Dean for Special Projects at Moravian College, is a member of the APA’s Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology (CDIP). He earned his B.A. in psychology from Carnegie Mellon University and received his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Virginia. Dunn is the author or editor of 19 books and over 150 journal articles, chapters, and book reviews. His scholarship examines teaching, learning, and liberal education, as well as the social psychology of disability. In 2013, Dunn received the American Psychological Foundation’s Charles L. Brewer Award for Distinguished Teaching of Psychology. He is currently editor-in-chief of the Oxford Bibliographies (OB): Psychology and a member of Board of the Foundation for Rehabilitation Psychology. Dr. Dunn also blogs regularly for Psychology Today’s “Head of the Class.”