My Turn: The etiquette of addressing a disabled person


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Published: 9/14/2021 4:06:42 PM

For those of you who are familiar with my column or are reading it for the first time, I would like to begin this article by addressing something very important; my disability does not define me. In the 22 years that I have been in this world, it never has and it never will.

Now, you may look at that sentence and shake your head in disbelief thinking how could her disability not define her when she needs help with everything from using the bathroom to having excess saliva suctioned out of her throat several times a day? And you would be partially correct in that statement. Yes, my disability does physically limit me in a lot of ways but it has also allowed me to hone in on and expand on the other strengths that I have.

It is a conscious decision that I, along with many other disabled individuals, have to make on a daily basis, in order to see the good things that it has brought into my life instead of ruminating on the things that it has taken from me. Because as anyone can imagine the latter is very easy to do and, furthermore, it is a narrative instilled into society for centuries.

And, in my opinion, it is high time for that age-old perception to be eradicated.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have been adamant about wanting to redefine how other people see disability — and me, as an individual with extremely evident limitations. And with a bachelor’s degree in not one but two majors under my belt, I have been a trailblazer in many respects. But every time that I enter into a public setting, I am continuously reminded how far disabled individuals are from being treated as equal members of society.

Earlier this summer, I was scrolling through Twitter one evening when I stumbled upon a thread of disabled people discussing the ableist and, if I am being honest, borderline demeaning, encounters that the majority of us experience every time we dare to leave our houses. As I scrolled through the slew of tweets in the thread, there were two types of these instances that were more prevalent than the rest in the individuals’ rants of rightful frustration — each of them concerning moments where strangers have addressed them in not an intentionally hurtful way, but still in less than a dignified manner.

The first was one that is the most common, according to the thread: where whenever strangers — or people unfamiliar with the disabled individual — address a disabled person it is extremely common for them to address their able-bodied caregiver standing next to the person that they are speaking about, instead of the person themselves.

The second was in reference to people’s habit of touching disabled individuals, out of pity or sympathy at people like mine’s situations.

While reading through the tweets my heart suddenly became heavy, not only because I deeply empathized with the individuals, having been in their situation countless numbers of times, but because it was the first time I realized just how normalized the demeaning behavior toward people like me has become.

Growing up, I didn’t have friends with visible disabilities so when people would ask my mom questions about me outside of church or when we were out shopping while I was sitting right next to her, I never really thought much of it. I chalked up people’s aversion to talk to me directly to my speech impediment and the fact that people who meet me for the first time can rarely understand my speech.

I thought it was just me who attracted looks of pity as people patted my hand, or worse my head, when they realized that I couldn’t move my hand to shake theirs during moments of introduction that always left me wishing I could fade into the pavement beneath me. When I was little, people had even fewer barriers and would want to touch me all the time; to the point that I put a sign on my wheelchair that read, “Please wash your hands before touching mine.” Shockingly, people still didn’t get the hint even with the sign.

It wasn’t until my college years, when I began to befriend people in similar situations to mine that I began to realize that they weren’t isolated incidents. But I didn’t realize just how far these behaviors had perpetuated into society until I saw that thread on Twitter. And I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the stigmatized perceptions that I believe to be at the root of these behaviors.

I am a human being too and my having a disability doesn’t affect my quality of life and looks of pity don’t give me anything, except a self-esteem complex. I want to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of my physical limitations; which includes strangers addressing me directly, instead of in the third person, and not patting me like I’m an infant.

If you take away anything from this article, let it be this: the next time that you encounter a disabled person in public, remember that they’re human just like you. And before you are tempted to partake in any of the aforementioned actions, please take a moment to put yourself in their shoes and consider how you would like to be treated.

Joanna Buoniconti is a recent graduate from UMass Amherst. She can be reached at


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