Words matter. Say the wrong thing, you might not get another chance. That’s high stakes, so let’s talk.
This past Sunday I had a stranger approached me and say some typical statements that able-bodied people make to me. I could tell he meant well and was trying to care about me, but he negated his intention with some hurtful comments. This happens way more thank you think. It happens so often that I’ve learned how to ignore the hurt in the moment. These interactions add up.
The words we utter to one another can be used to encourage in the faith (1 These 5:9-11) or it could use to burn down relationships, unity, or simply discourage others (James 3:4-6). Our words bless and curse ourselves and those around us (James 3:9-11), so this is vital to starting and building friendships with those in the disabled community.
I am definitely not the first or last person to come up with a list of hurtful statements made towards someone disabled, but I hope my article gives you (the able-bodied and disabled) a fantastic example of why we should be more compassionate and forgiving.
Before you read on… if you have said any of these to me – or someone else – please read the whole thing. I promise it’s for your good.
Those 10 Statements
1. What happened to you? (or) What’s wrong with you?
These questions are sharp and intrusive at times… and not to mention, these questions and rude. If you don’t know the person, this is not appropriate and comes across as if the way they are somehow broken.
In my experience, this comes across demeaning and a complete devaluation of my dignity as a human being. It’s something I’ve heard a variation from doctors, which is okay because they are taking care of me. But, if you’re not my doctor, this is hurtful.
2. But you look so good!
What does this even mean? If you look “good,” you shouldn’t be disabled? Most of the people I’ve met take this statement as a way to say something nice when they can’t think of anything else to say. Avoid this just because – at best – it’s a shallow comment.
When I first was sick and in the hospital, I knew what people meant (“You don’t look as bad as you did. You’re making progress”). Now, I don’t know exactly how to take it. With strangers, I tend to believe that they expect someone disabled to always look rough, physically. I know rescind with “I may look good, but my insides are a different story.”
(1/10 of the time, I get a chuckle.)
3. Will you ever get better?
No. Well, it would be very rare. FYI, there are a very, very small amount of treatments or “cures” for a small number of disabilities. Being disabled is not a condition or trial you get through. Asking someone if they’re getting better can only remind them of their hardships or possibly further deepen hopelessness and/or anger.
I cant tell you how often I am asked this. I have been asked this ever since I awoke from my coma in August 2015, and it’s only increasing with time. I often get annoyed because this is the only topic they feel comfortable talking to me about.
Will I get better? Sure. But, not fully recover. I’m okay with that, are you?
4. Your [wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend] is so great by being with you.
Yes, those who are disabled and have a significant other are blessed. Most disabled people I have met and known find this frustrating because it’s a complete dismissal and/or neglect of their input into their relationship. It almost becomes a direct translation to, “You’re so lucky that someone would love you and stay with you… you know, because you’re disabled (absence of your ability to love them).”
Ali is amazing. I am lucky and beyond blessed to have a wife who endures all this pain, takes care of my numerous needs, and is an amazing mother. But, I would love to hear one day someone say something about my feeble attempts to love her and my daughter. I know, I know… that’s insanely self-centered and prideful for me to think. But, if I’m honest, I think that.
5. Here, let me do that for you.
Disabled people are able to do things. Of course if someone is in a low wheelchair they might need some help with things higher up, but do not assume they need or even want your help. When people just do things for someone else it may seem small but if everyone in their lives do that, they may get frustrated or impatient. Treat them like anyone else: see, ask, help. Don’t skip the asking part.
This only bothers me because I – sometimes wrongly – believe it is out of pity or systemic and implicit superiority. Whether that’s true or not, consistently being served without the chance to serve others has been hard to cope with.
6. (Looking away from you) How’s he/she doing? Does he/she need anything?
Disabled people hate this. Unless expressly instructed, we are people who can speak for ourselves. This infuriates most because its another way we feel devalued as a person but also like we don’t exist in your world.
Again, if doctors do this about Ali’s perspective or to see if she has a different perspective, I get that. If a doctor or anyone else asks my wife questions I can easily answer, look at me and talk to me. I exist and I can speak for myself.
7. Oh, there’s stairs… I’ll pick you up and take you down. That’s not hard.
No, you can’t. No one wants you. Simple rule: don’t touch someone and/or their wheelchair unless given permission.
No. Don’t touch my wheelchair. IT IS HARD, and I really don’t need to defend this. Just… no.
8. God will heal you.
Who shouldn’t you say this to? Two kinds of people: the anti-God and the pro-God but depart for a miracle. But, why shouldn’t you say this? Because you don’t know the will of God, and if God doesn’t do a miracle, they will be either vindicated in disbelief or question His love and/or goodness. Instead, tell them you’re praying for a miracle, God has done them before and will do them again, and He is with them through it all (example: The Fiery Furnace – read carefully).
I believe God does, can, and will do miracles. But… that does not mean when we pray for a miracle, God always provides one. Our attitude should be pray, believe, and trust what happens is His good, gracious, loving, perfect, and sovereign plan. I place my faith in Him. I do not, and will not, place my faith in what He provides.
9. By now, its gotta be easy, right?
Yes, it gets easier living with a disability, but no, it is never easy. Each aspect of life requires effort and adapting. You get used to it more and more, but, since the world is usually made for non-disabled people, it always is a challenge. This statement conveys a thought of “being disabled is not that hard and you should get used to it.” Life is not simplistic, and we just want some acknowledgment.
Over three years of being disabled, I can say that life has gotten easier but life is not easy. I’ve been privileged by my body’s and brain progress but that progress does not cancel out the difficulty of everyday tasks, buildings not being accessible, handling social interactions, and struggling to do things for my wife and daughter (etc). Remember: easier but not easy.
10. My problems are nothing compared to yours.
Translation: “You have such a worse life than me” or “I can’t even talk about my hardships because yours are way worse than mine.” When this is said it demonstrates a belief that you are actively comparing your life to ours. And, we hate that the world is playing the comparing and judging our quality of life.
I’ve heard this almost every time I talk about struggles and almost every time I share people immediately shut down and refuse to open up. Let me just say this for the last time: I struggle. You struggle. I need help. You need help. We can be the for each other. Let me try to help you and you’ll try to help me.
Jesus, The Perfect Responder
Why should you even care about what offends someone disabled? I mean, its just their problem, and if they’re offended they should get over it or find a good way to handle it. WRONG.
If you at all strive to love the disabled as Jesus does, you should know two things about his well-known with the “lame” man in John 5.
Jesus is compassionate (John 5:1-3, 5-9)
When Jesus comes into a pool called Bethesda, He “saw him there and knew that he had already been there a long time.” He came into an area with a lot of disabled people waiting for a miracle, and He “saw” and “knew” the man’s long-term suffering (38 years).
When He saw and knew the man’s suffering, He is demonstrating His compassion. For this man’s 38 years of disability, he waited for someone, anyone, to care about him, and Jesus does this immediately. Jesus vividly shows compassion by actually doing something: He heals the man.
Compassion requires action, so Jesus models how He loves and has compassion for the suffering of this disabled man. So, why be compassionate in your words? Why should you be considerate and care about your statements to the disabled in your life? Because if you are a Christian, follow Jesus’s example and be compassionate.
Jesus is involved (John 5:10-17)
After Jesus does heal the disabled man, the Pharisees show up and have some beef with Jesus. It was Jewish law to not do work of any kind on the Sabbath, so they had, what they thought, a legitimate concern for Jesus miracle. The only issue was that the man didn’t know Jesus’ name. The Pharisees had an issue with when he did His miracle instead of marveling that the miracle has been done. And, since this man was an outcast of society, they disapproved of being involved with someone disregarded and ignored by the world.
Jesus got involved. He broke religious and societal custom, which was kind of His thing. He was interacting with and caring for the neglected and ignored in intimate ways (healing, eating meals, speaking with, etc). Jesus also answered why He was able to do it on the Sabbath by making it clear to the Pharisees that He was God… and that’s when they started plotting to kill Him. Jesus got involved and He did it knowing He would be persecuted for it. It was worth it to Him.
So why be involved in the lives of disabled men, women, and children? Why be involved in knowing etiquette and how to love “the others” in the world? Simple: Because if you are a Christian, follow Jesus’s example and be involved.
To my disabled brothers and sisters, what if your able-bodied brothers and sisters in Christ say one of the 10 things listed above, or they say something “brand-new” that’s offensive or just plain hurtful? Forgive. I’ll say see it again: Forgive. It is very easy to not forget someone, but you were called forgive just as you have been forgiven.
‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. ‘
To my able-bodied brothers and sisters, what if you say one the 10 things listed above or you say something that makes your disabled friend uncomfortable? Apologize. Learn from your mistakes and learn to love them in the future with your words. But, what if your disabled friend does not respond well and sins against you? Forgive. You are called to forgive them too.
Words matter. Use them like Christ and it will produce unity in the Church, and forgive each other as God has forgiven us for our hatred and rebellion against Him.