Here’s my Top 10 Disability Clanger or what NOT to say to the parent of a child with disabilities.
They include some of the pitfalls to avoid and advice for making situations less awkward. It’s a minefield and I’m as hopeless as the next person, frequently putting my size six’s in my mouth. Few people are deliberately mean but thoughtless remarks can resound like a large clanger none the less.*
*If you are at all worried that you recognise yourself in the following paragraphs,
please don’t, it wasn’t you, it was someone else.
1) I love your baby. What a lovely thing to say, yes? No. Not when you are walking around a garden centre pushing your seven year old in his wheelchair and the person speaking is a complete stranger. My husband and I had a quick look amongst the foliage for the missing infant but didn’t find him.
My advice: Don’t profess love for a child you don’t know based on the fact they have a disability. Disability does not make a child more or less loveable.
Make your conversation age-appropriate. My child may not be able to respond to you in the way you expect but talking to a ten year old like a toddler isn’t cool. Keep your language clear without speaking like you’re talking to a baby.
Talk to my child directly, not to me. I may provide the response but we will both appreciate your efforts.
2) Phew, he looks normal This was said in a couple of situations by a friend. It’s quite simple. The N word is rarely the right thing to say.
My advice: There is always a good way to compliment a child with a disability but normality’ is not one of them. You can recognise their smile, beautiful eyes or pretty dress, being authentic and real is paramount.
3) You should see a doctor about that One day when SD was under one I took him round our local greengrocers and helped him touch and smell the produce. I was concerned when the shopkeeper approached as I anticipated being reprimanded for fondling his fruit. With a couple of awkward smiles I explained I was helping my son experience the vegetables with his other senses because he couldn’t see. I was speechless when he responded with the suggestion that I should take him to the doctor. The idea that I had got to the point of allowing my blind son to sniff grapefruit without first seeking medical advice was baffling.
My advice: Only share knowledge you are proficient in. If you are a greengrocer help with fruit selection. If you are a medical professional give advice when requested. No matter who you are, a good first step is to ask if your opinion or advice is wanted.
4) You’re lucky you have people in to help Having carers around while I’m fraught and trying to get out of the house in the morning isn’t fun. Bath-time and bed-time are private family affairs for good reason and no-one wants to see my bed hair at 6.30am.
My advice: People only get help when they are struggling and few people want to struggle. It isn’t an advantage, rather a necessary intrusion of privacy.
5) At least you always know where he is. This was said when I was out bowling with friends struggling to keep tabs on their kids and it is only one of many such comments. It’s true I needn’t worry about wrapping a birthday present with my son in the room, university fees or many other things but these aren’t really advantages, and I have plenty of problems you won’t have considered.
My Advice: Don’t warp a disadvantage into an advantage.** Silver linings are great so if you want to comment on an advantage make it a real one, choose a benefit that is actually a benefit. (** It remains the parent’s prerogative to identify advantages no matter how tongue in cheek and then you can join in.)
6) He’s such a blessing. I think this is Christian speak for You’re so lucky and it has been said many times. It goes along the same line as the He’s doing so well platitude.
My Advice: If you don’t know a child don’t make such comments because you can’t tell if he is doing well, a blessing or currently a royal pain in the neck. My son is a blessing to me and my family and that is for me to broadcast.
7) It’s just the same when my Jimmy√¢‚Ç¨¬¶ I’ve lost count at how often my child and my experience has been “just like” other people’s. There haven’t been many times when I have agreed.
My advice: Avoid assuming you know how I feel or what I am experiencing. It is good to hear a friend share their own experience as a parent but on the whole it is very different in an inexplicable way.
8) I’m sure it’ll get better. One day I was walking down an aisle in my local supermarket with SD wearing a fetching NG tube snaking out of his nose and taped to his cheek. After several minutes of staring, a gentleman approached and asked what was wrong with my son. I smiled my fake smile (I wasn’t in a good place emotionally) and explained he wasn’t able to swallow properly and needed help with feeding. Banter ensued with him insisting that he was sure he would get better because medical science is amazing these days. The conversation came to an abrupt end when I got fed up of arguing and practically shouted at him, He’s got brain damage, it isn’t going to get better. ***
My advice: Be happy to hear bad news without having to make it better. There is a place for trying to help friends see the brighter side of life but often the best option is to LISTEN and be prepared to not offer anything other than the sense of being heard and understood.
9) God only gives you what you can bear. This is a misused quote and a cheap trick. On bad days when I want to give up and cry in the corner a comment like this belittles how I am feeling and what I am going through.
My advice: Don’t say it. I believe it takes scripture out of context and can be more harmful than good. I have friends whose children have been adopted because it was too much. The news reports tragic events where parents do terrible things because they become overwhelmed. Please don’t add to someone’s burden by creating an expectation of coping. That said, I strongly believe in God’s ability to make good things out of difficult situations. In fact, I think He is at his best when we are at our worst and we get chance to see unpredictable beauty in the most unlikely places.
10) Do you work?
My advice: Don’t get me started. You have no idea√¢‚Ç¨¬¶
As ever this is just my opinion based on personal experience. I know people are well meaning and I’m sorry to those who have experienced the brunt of my sensitive feelings. Sometimes it’s an emotional marathon just to get out the door and my hope is that we can all learn to live and love each other better.
Because when you meet me and my son, leaving us with a well chosen word or thoughtful smile, makes our day. Please believe the risk of getting it wrong is worth it because getting it right can plant a beautiful flower on an otherwise grey day. The colourful memory of a positive encounter with a thoughtful stranger shines brighter than any of the clangers
What’s your advice to avoid some disability clangers? Can something be said that is always welcomed? Tell me your stories.
***I apologise to the poor man who got shouted at by a cranky lady doing her Christmas shopping.
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