Talking to Disabled People About Disabilities

I, and many other ill and disabled people, have been asked invasive questions by total strangers on multiple occasions. It’s ableist and uncomfortable to say the least.

 

But what about friends and family? How can they ask about our conditions without falling into the same category as those offensive strangers? Perhaps how can strangers be less offensive and invasive.

 

Step one is showing from the start that you have respect for their option to decline answering. Just because they know you doesn’t mean they’re ready to share every little detail with you. This can be done by opening the conversation with “I’m going to ask you a question about your health, but I respect that you may not want to answer. I take full accountability if I overstep here.”

 

Try to know what you can before asking. For example, I’m epileptic so if you want to know what kind of seizure I have try to know the common types so you can ask “do you have tonic-clonic seizures or absence? What does that mean?”

Everyone is different when it comes to how open they are to questions and educating so self-education, even the tiniest bit, can really help and shows you genuinely want to learn for the right reasons. This will make the person more likely to open up rather than take the approach of making you educate yourself entirely.

 

Don’t start with an apology. “Sorry I don’t know much but can you please explain [insert topic].” There’s no need. We don’t expect you to know everything, sometimes doctors don’t know everything, so we certainly don’t expect you to know everything.

Instead try “hopefully this isn’t too much to answer but or can you tell me where I can find out more.”

 

Remember it’s not our responsibility to educate you on everything.

 

Be confident but not overconfident. If you’re shy and stammering because you’re scared to ask, you’re probably going to frustrate the patient. Come in overconfident and you’re going to annoy the person in question. You’re just talking to a fellow human so treat them as such.

 

Sometimes one of my friends who asks a lot of questions will come in shy and I just want him to spit it out and start to worry it’s going to be offensive but most of the time he asks me the same way he asks me what I want for lunch and it makes it a comfortable environment for the conversation which makes it much easier to answer his questions. What also helps is he has a lot of patience as I try to find the right way to answer the question.

For example, he frustrated me by asking me to lift each leg one at a time and stared at me. Big no. This made me frustrated and uncomfortable. Turns out he wanted to ask how I can move (albeit with limited motion) my leg with functional limb weakness. Once I had the question, I could actually have a conversation, without being a science experiment, and give him the answer he was looking for. However, it wasn’t until the next day that I had the perfect answer which was okay with him because he genuinely wanted to know.

In case you’re now also wondering how it works; the wires that tell me my leg is there, that I can feel it and that it has strength to stand on are mis-wired so the messages from my brain aren’t getting through but weak signals from the wires telling to move it occasionally get through.

 

This one is especially important when talking to strangers or friends/family that have only just been diagnosed or started new treatment; “Please tell me to leave/change topic if this is too much” or “I know somebody else who appears to be in a similar situation, do you mind if I ask a question.”

 

I leave you with the most important note of all, don’t make assumptions or ask blunt questions like “what’s wrong with your face?”. This is incredibly disrespectful and falls under ableist micro-aggressions. I’ve had plenty of people, friends, family, acquaintances and strangers ask blunt questions (“what’s wrong with you now?” “why do you look like that” “what did you do this time?” “why are you so skinny?” “why have you gained so much weight?” “why aren’t you eating?” etc.) and it often triggers me to go non-verbal with my autism because I feel so disrespected and unsafe.

 

Be kind, open, respectful and ready to look up resources given to you and you should be just fine.

Striving to Achieve

There’s a giant part of me that people either don’t know exists or they don’t understand how it exists within me. That part that coexists with my illnesses and disabilities is my athleticism. That’s right, I’m sick and disabled but I’m also an athlete.

 

Before everything went downhill I was on the Australian Development Squad for Taekwon-Do with big plans for my future.

I was so focused on representing my country and doing my best to win gold in Spain first before moving onto more. But there are people I consider best friends who have never known that I held such potential at some point in my life.

 

Osgood Schlatter Disease (OSD) in my right leg was the first bump in the road to Spain. At first it seemed like a small blip until it came to a point where I had to learn to walk again. I engaged in intense physiotherapy regime, learned how to walk, learned how to live with my knees disease and gained my strength back to be able to return to the sport that owns my heart.

 

Then epilepsy reared its ugly head into the situation along with some symptoms that were undiagnosed at the time but we now know are from Functional Neurological Disorder (FND). Some say that given the high contact level of the sport and the potential knocks to the head meant I had to give up the sport then and there. That wasn’t going to happen on my watch. Protective headgear wasn’t a requirement at the time but it became a personal requirement for me. I trained harderthan my team mates to be able to dodge head attacks specifically. I was already quick on my feet and fast at calculating somebody else’s moves and my countermoves but I worked hard at perfecting the craft so I could truly protect myself. I learned to listen to my body better than anybody else on my team, I had to listen and learn what my body could and couldn’t handle so that I could continue at the sport I adored while staying safe. 

I trained at least twice as hard as my team mates, learnt things they didn’t bother with, just to keep up and keep safe.

Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) made multiple appearances and took me out of the game on many occasions but I always came back. I worked my butt off in intense physical therapy regimes to get to where I wanted to get to. I’d go into remission just to fall back into its evil clutches and have to learn to walk again while my team mates progressed in their learnings and competing. I think this part has been the biggest hurdle mentally. This time I wasn’t working twice as hard to keep up, I was working three times as hard to get back to where I was at. By this point I had been removed from the team with my spot on the team reserved should I ever be able to make it back. Most people would’ve given up at this point and I don’t blame them, I’d be lying if I said I’d never been tempted to give up, but I wasn’t ready to give up at any CRPS hurdle I faced. I currently face the arguably biggest CRPS hurdle yet and you can ask my Sabomnim (instructor) I am still determined to catch up, be the best Jeja(student) and make it onto the national team again. Even as I can’t currently physically participate in classes I still play a big role in keeping my fellow jeja’s on their feet because I spend my extra time studying theory and challenge them to keep up with me. I also have the most competition experience and get to share that with them and push them to do better. I’m forever grateful that I’ve been able to surround myself with wonderful Sabomnimand fellow Jeja who give me these opportunities that keep me engaged and full of determination.

 

I also dance at the most welcoming and understanding studio that I’m also thankful for. Thanks to FND I currently need to learn how to walk and use my left leg again. I’m also still dealing with the aforementioned mess of CRPS. I’ve already missed so much recently but the studio owner/instructor and my dance family are so supportive and remind me to focus on overcoming this hurdle so that I can dance again. They know I’ll make it back to them and don’t rush me which is the best daily reminder I could possibly receive, especially the reminder to not rush myself. In dance I still have to apply a lot of what I’ve learnt throughout the years in regards to my OSD, epilepsy, asthma, FND and CRPS. It’s not an easy sport for anybody but my body has made it harder and thankfully my dance family understand that. They know as much as I do that I’ll probably be back in the studio slightly too early before I’m supposed to be back but I’ll be back and fighting to do my best when the time is ready for me and we all know it.

It’s not easy and I still have to do things differently or pay different attention to my body but I’m still there.

 

The point here is this is shocking news to a lot when it shouldn’t be.

In an era where events like “The Paralympics” exist and are gaining more attention we still expect people to give up all athleticism the second they get sick or gain a disability. The abled society expects us to just give up even when we don’t have to. Some people are in situations where they can’t keep going on with their sporting ventures or they make the decision to put it aside but there are still people that can keep going they just have to do things differently.

 

We also automatically treat the people who continue with their sporting endeavours as irresponsible as though they don’t go above and beyond to keep their bodies safe. The other side of that coin is treating those who don’t have athletic projects as not caring for their body because we believe that yoga fixes everything.

 

We need to listen to people from all unique walks of life and respect that they know what their body can handle, that they know how to adjust things to suit their needs. We need to create a safe environment for ill and disabled people to discuss exercising, or not exercising, in a way that leaves them feeling connected, listened to and respected. The current style of discussion leaves people not wanting to talk about it. There will be people who are shocked but proud that I have persisted and people who believe I’m endangering myself when they know nothing about the extra precautions I take to protect my body while still enjoying what I love to do. Some will simply say I’m faking all of my illnesses and disabilities if I’m able to do what I do. This is not the environment we deserve to be stuck in. I work my butt off to keep up with my peers and I deserve to be able to talk freely about that without judgment and accusations. I should be able to talk about it the way any other athlete talks about their experiences; the highs, the lows and everything in between.