Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What Not To Say To Someone With A Disability

What to say, what not to say, that is the question. I have lived with chronic pain and disability for a number of years, but it wasn’t until 2009, when I had to start dealing with wearing the full-length leg brace on my left leg. There is no hiding my disability any longer. Strangers used to never know; now everyone thinks they somehow need to commensurate or share their story with me. It makes no difference where I am, the doctor’s office, the grocery store, or eating dinner at a restaurant with my family, people walk up to me and say random things. Here are just a few I have heard many times:
  • “Oh, look at you, you are walking so good!” (Said in a voice that you would use to talk to a 3 year old.) I am sure this is meant to be an encouragement, and I try to take it as such.
  • “Oh, that’s nothing!” (…and then they feel the need to tell me how some medical condition they have gone through is so much worse, so I should be glad I am not them.) Well, I AM glad I am not them, but this is NOT nothing! This has been a long, hard, difficult path. I realize people feel the need to relate to me, or to try to make me look on the bright side, but to tell me that you had knee surgery years ago, and that it “hurt worse than anything you are feeling” (yes, this was a recent quote from a woman at the grocery store) does not make me feel better. To be honest, I struggle to keep my cool. I try hard to remind myself, that this is an opportunity to let God work through me. To let a stranger talk about themselves (everyone loves to do this) and be able to encourage them, to say “that must have been so hard for you”, to acknowledge their pain and ask if you can pray for them, does make me feel good. I know that God is working through me and His Spirit strengthens me to hold my tongue.
  • “I know exactly how you feel.” No, you don’t. I do not believe we can “compare” sufferings or hardships or disabilities. The truth is we all go through things. Some are very difficult for one person, and may not be the big of deal for someone else, but I cannot make the assumption that if something is “easy” for me, it should be easy for everyone. God has made each of us with different gifts, and skills, different coping skills, different pain tolerances, different families and support systems, etc. (You get the picture.) Even, if an identical situation were presented to two different people, neither could say the “know exactly how” the other feels. It is not helpful to try to minimize my situation to make me feel better.
  • “I’m so sorry.” Sometimes, this seems like the only thing to say, although I wonder, should you REALLY feel sorry for me. God has allowed these events in my life to sanctify me. I need your prayers not your pity. Don’t feel sorry for me. Pray for me. Tell me that you are praying that God would continue to strengthen me. Pray that He would be glorified in me. Pray that I would not lose sight of my Savior.

I have no problem with people I meet asking what happened. I actually prefer that to staring or avoiding, but the key (for me at least) is that you are a “person I meet.” I don’t really want to discuss all my medical issues with a complete stranger in the grocery store. You would not walk up to a healthy person and ask how their kidneys are (at least, I hope you wouldn’t). The moral of the story: talk to a disabled person like you would talk to anyone else you know.

Have any of you had a similar experience? Do you agree or disagree? Please share!


  1. Great post, Shari. We all need a reminder of this sort periodically.

  2. Thanks Bryan. I have been guilty of being uncomfortable around someone disabled in the past, it can be awkward.

  3. I have a million of them. I also deal with chronic back pain (two failed surgeries and a pain pump that isn't working very well) and various aspects of mental illness and other stuff. Although I tell people my physical pain is the least of my problems, all they ever mention is my back pain and think that's what my main problem is. No matter how much I say it, I suppose they just identify with physical pain and I seem 'normal' otherwise. Regarding Bipolar disorder, people will say, "Yeah, I have my ups and downs too." Then there are the suggestions for supplements or their chiropractor or numerous other things that I already know don't do anything. Also, people assume that because I'm suffering, it must be because I don't know enough, don't pray enough, don't work hard enough at it, etc. Do you think I want to be this way? I've been researching for decades, have a daily routine, have tried just about everything I can, have been through counseling many times and God has sanctified me so much more than if I didn't suffer like this. My tone here is a little more negative than I'd like to be, but it's the easiest way to explain it. I'd like to write a series of posts on this and will be more irenic. Those are just a sample of the many things that I know you're familiar with.

  4. Jeff,
    If only I had a dollar for every time someone told me their chiropractor could fix all my problems! My son has bipolar disorder and Asperger's, so I am familiar with the bias people have towards mental illness and their spiritualizing it. Sorry to hear that people treat you that way. Our son has been told he shouldn't take meds but just trust God to heal him. It is very frustrating.

  5. My ex-boyfriend coached a wheelchair basketball team and I spent a lot of time with those kids. He has cerebal palsy, too. So I was used to getting awkward stares and uncomfortable comments when we'd go places. It's a struggle for most people to know what to say. Thanks for sharing your insights. :)

  6. Some people can be very rude, most are just trying to relate on some level. Being an introvert, it can be uncomfortable for me when all the strangers walk up to me and keep asking detailed, personal, medical questions. Thanks for reading, and commenting!