How People React to Disability

handicap sticker

“Hey, slow down would you!”

“Wanna race?”

“I can hear you coming from a mile away!”

“At least you get a good parking spot”

“Let me tell you about the time I was on crutches…”

Crutches, for me, were a conversation magnet. It is kind of like the guy who buys a cute dog so that all the girls at the park will talk to him. Except, my social experiment seemed more like an invitation to every budding comedian on the street to poke fun at my lack of mobility, my speed, the fact that my arms were going to get so strong from using these assistive devices…or conversely for people to merely avail me with their heroic stories of their own stints on crutches and their “come to physical therapy” moments. I am a good listener, normally, but with my limited mobility…I really couldn’t move too fast to get away!

I don’t know what it is about this situation that makes people want to talk to you. I also am at a loss to explain the types of words and speech that were most often directed at me. As I have written about before, words and language matter, especially to those who are vulnerable or in pain. Language allows us to explain our inner and outer worlds, make sense of emotions, and share these intimacies with others. As I’ve moved (physically and symbolically) through different stages of injury, disability, and recovery, one of the most painful things that I’ve had to endure is others’ reactions to my experience of injury and disability. Sadly, I would have to say that the most common reaction that I experienced was this: aversion.

“Lost in aversion, we forget our capacity to love” -Sharon Salzberg

My reaction to these comments from others has evolved from one of mostly internal anger into a more gentle place of acceptance. But, to be honest, my first thought when something pointed was said was usually: “That was so incredibly insensitive, you have no idea what it is like…no idea what it is like to shape your life around your faltering body…”

I realize that it is impossible for others to know the backstory to my injury and recovery process and it is impossible for them to know how upsetting to my life the events surrounding my recovery were. But, maybe that is the point? When you are in doubt about a person’s circumstances, how do you relate to that person? With self-serving humor or an off-the-cuff remark? Or with an attempt at true connection, such as a gentle word or a kind gesture?

The default of kindness can never be wrong. So important is a willingness to share space with another person, no matter their condition. The very worst thing you can do is to react with aversion.

What People Say When They Don’t Know What to Say

This video moved me to tears. I was captivated, saddened, angered and ultimately empathetic.

I understand that it is not always apparent what the, “right thing,” would be to say or do. But, my intent with this discussion is to make people more aware of their gut reactions to disability, illness, and the like. I would ask that you try to keep an open mind and really evaluate what your intent is with how you are treating the people around you.

You don’t have to say anything. Just be with the person. Your willingness to be there physically means everything. Be there for the doctor visit, or the MRI, or the surgery or physical therapy appointment. Be there when everyone else is out playing football at the park and they can’t go. Be there when that person wants to talk to you or when he doesn’t. It is the most important thing, but sometimes it is also the hardest. It is not always easy or comfortable to experience that space of unknown and suffering and sometimes silence of someone you love.

“The Buddha taught that if the heart is full of love and compassion, which is the inner state, the outer manifestation is care and connectedness, which is morality; they are both aspects of the same radiance.” –Sharon Salzberg

Disability can create distance between people. Most obvious is the physical distance: it is hard to walk as close to someone who is crutching or using a cane or in a wheel chair. It is harder to hug or get close. People treat you with the uncertainty of carrying a stack of fragile china plates. But, when you really think about it, the issue of space is not so hard to overcome. I would ask you to try an experiment of closing the physical gap between you and someone who is suffering. Instead of a gut reaction of pulling away, what would it be like to embrace another in his or her state of pain or discomfort? Could you choose empathy instead of sympathy?

All we really want is for people to give us permission to be imperfect. When you refuse to acknowledge another person’s disability, imperfection, struggles- you are in some way saying, “I will only love you or spend time with you at your best, in your most polished state of being.” To me that is a great tragedy.

As I wrote about before, being human is messy. There is not one of us who is perfect or has it all together 100% of the time. That does not mean there is something wrong with us. To realize that we are not the masters of our circumstances (especially when in pain) is an ultimately freeing, but often difficult realization. We are not victims of our circumstances either.

“When we feel unhappiness or pain, it is not a sign that things have gone terribly wrong or that we have done something wrong by not being able to control the circumstances.” –Sharon Salzberg


A wonderful book and where I drew many of the inspiring quotes for this post, is the book “Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness” by Sharon Salzberg.