disability friendship essay by Kelly Dawson

I like making new friends…

I’ve made them in Target aisles, at farmers markets and in bookstores. Sometimes it’s just a few minutes of lively small talk, other times it has a Humphrey Bogart-level of promise. It’s comforting, in any degree, to feel seen by another person.

Once, on a solo trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, I said, “So we meet again!” to a woman who wandered near me into all of the same rooms, and we later ordered snacks at the cafe. A year or so later, on a flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, I hit it off with two seatmates and we went out for dinner during their visit to my hometown. And for my gold medal in serendipitous friendships, I agreed to a 20-hour, round-trip drive to a wedding with a mutual guest I barely knew. We were asked how long we’d known each other at the reception, and we responded with, “Since yesterday!” over a shared dessert.

My newest friend and I met in a ceramics class in Santa Barbara last fall. She had a clever one-liner to something our teacher said, and I tried to subdue my laughter by staring down at the cup that I actually intended to be a bowl. She was standing in front of me when I looked up, so I blurted out, “Can we be friends?” She smiled and we met for drinks a few nights later. As I walked to the bar, I was nervous. It was a familiar feeling, a well-tended knot that forms in my stomach whenever I know I should have the talk. “If it comes up, be cool. If it doesn’t come up, make it come up because she’s probably wondering about it and you’ll feel better,” I told myself.

It helps to be friendly, considering that I’m stared at almost everywhere I go. I was born with cerebral palsy, a physical disability that affects my legs and forces my knees inward when I walk. When I reach for a dress at Target, an apple at a farmers market, or a paperback at a bookstore, I readily notice non-disabled strangers holding their gaze on my gait. I register a mix of fear, confusion, and pity in their eyes right before they meet mine, and the second that they do I smile and say hello. I don’t always make this choice, and this situation isn’t the standard meet-cute of my friendships. But when I match that stare with a greeting, most strangers soften and small talk. It makes me feel like I’m no longer on display.

“I’m sorry you have to do that,” my oldest friend said to me recently about this habit, for the 1,000th time. We call it being a disability spokesperson. Ever since we met at recess in the fourth grade, she’s witnessed how the world treats disabled people differently. Her comforting refrain is something my new friend in Santa Barbara later repeated, decades and drinks later.

To be disabled and to care about a disabled person is to grasp all the ways in which the world was designed for non-disabled bodies. It’s why people stare, after all. Staring is a silent reminder of how the disabled community has been systematically discriminated against for generations: it’s an Othering spark that can either lead to an upsetting escalation or a diffusing hello. Even 30 years after the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act, we are still mocked, forced, or killed out of public life. This occurs from childhood to adulthood, and affects our access to education, our ability to secure housing, our chances at gainful employment, and our right to “do no harm” healthcare. The ADA recognizes disability in the eyes of the law, not in those of society.

When I have the talk, it’s to invite non-disabled friends to take a view of the world that disabled people know too well. It’s when I let someone in on the most vulnerable detail about me—how I gain access to public life — in the hope that I can trust them to listen. I say, “My leg muscles tighten with pain if I move too much or too little. I can do most of what a non-disabled person can do, but sometimes it takes a little creativity.” I’ll go into details, and then I’ll invite them to ask questions. At this point, I reassure them that they can say the wrong thing as they learn, and that it’s bound to happen. There are 61 million disabled Americans across all identities, and countless “wrong things” explaining why we’ve been misunderstood.

At the end of this speech, I’ll joke and say, “Welcome to friendship with me!” because it’s less intense if I do all of this in an entertaining tone, like watching a preview for a movie. I usually let out a big exhale on the ride home, as I did in Santa Barbara.

Afterwards, I ask friends to wrap their arms in mine so that I can listen to their stories instead of solely focusing on what’s in our path: uneven sidewalks, high curbs, endless stairs. As our friendship deepens, they’ll seek out benches for me to rest on and get equally annoyed when elevators aren’t as easy to find. They’ll notice the steps into storefronts, the mere inches between restaurant tables, and the precarious vagueness of when an outsider says, “It’s a short walk.” Suddenly, getting around the world is measured in energy and obstacles, and not just in distance and time.

My friends also start to spot how strangers can stare, and how they can talk through me or at me like I’m a child. “I can’t believe someone would say that,” they’ve remarked with shocked expressions when a person says something they’ve learned is incorrect. We shake our heads in unison, knowing that structural inequality isn’t just about a staircase without a ramp, but a voice with an ostracising opinion. Eventually, friends will echo my words: “She’s not inspiring if she’s doing exactly what you’re doing,” or, “We all have needs, there’s no such thing as ‘special needs,’” or my personal favorite, “The preferred term is ‘disabled,’ a disabled person is literally telling you that.” In other words, my closest friends become members of a disability advocacy club, a group formed not by choice but by necessity.

As grateful as I am for this club’s existence, I wish our membership dues didn’t exist. Too many non-disabled people are unaware of the disabled community’s lived experience — that we’re whole people with interesting lives — and that’s a detriment to everyone. There can be no real inclusivity without us. It would be such a relief to know my friendships with non-disabled people didn’t have to start with me as a teacher, or that I didn’t have to act as an accommodating spokesperson whenever a stranger’s curiosity got the best of them. I’ll always be friendly, but perhaps there will come a time when the talk doesn’t have to start from square one.

Last summer, my oldest friend got married on a snow-capped mountain in June. As her brother and I made the slippery walk to the ceremony, he asked the best question I think any non-disabled person has ever said to me about my disability: “How can I help you do what you’re already doing?” In one sentence, he recognized my autonomy and was ready to participate in what I know best. Acknowledging and listening are essential tools of any strong friendship, and they should be used when learning more about all disabilities: physical and intellectual, seen and unseen.

In that spirit, I asked four disabled women — Emily Ladau, Imani Barbarin, Alice Wong, and Alaina Leary — to describe what they would like non-disabled people to know about their experiences, and how to be better allies to the disabled community overall.

“I’ve had so many encounters that were needlessly awkward because I use a wheelchair and people aren’t quite sure how to interact with me. Mobility equipment shouldn’t make anyone uncomfortable. It’s simply a means of getting around, and not a measure of a person’s worth or humanity. Engaging with anyone who uses mobility equipment comes down to the same thing you should practice when engaging with anyone, regardless of disability status: respect.” — Emily Ladau, writer, disability activist and communications consultant

“I would like non-disabled readers to look at their bookshelves or e-readers and scroll through their collections. How many books do you have by disabled, neurodivergent, Deaf, and chronically ill writers? Readers should champion #OwnVoices writers, a term first coined by writer Corrine Duyvis, which identifies books with diverse characters written by authors who share the same identities. For far too long, both fiction and non-fiction about disability has been written by non-disabled people. It’s time to add some disability diversity to your library and send a message to the publishing industry that there is a hunger for authentic disability representation by disabled writers.” — Alice Wong, editor of Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century

“The disability community is incredibly diverse, and one of the ways that manifests is in the accommodations we create for ourselves. As our bodies are different from one another, so is the accessibility we need. Accessibility is not a copy-and-paste endeavor, and routinely, the most accessible spaces have several options that all can choose from. You must include the disability community in all that you do, but the most important aspect to inclusion is this: You must listen to us. We are the experts of our own needs. In this vein, we often collaborate with other disabled people to find the tools and services that can help us all navigate the world in which we live. We need allies, not saviors, so disavow yourselves of the idea that you can sweep in and know what we need. Learn from us and promote our voices so that others can understand our needs as well.” — Imani Barbarin, writer, blogger and communications director

“I wish that non-disabled people made accessibility a priority all the time, not just when they believe someone will need it. I find it incredibly refreshing when any event, public or private, has access in mind. It means a lot to me when someone says, ‘I’m having a party this weekend. I made sure to host it in a space without stairs,’ or ‘I’m going to invite you to my wedding shower. Do you have any allergies or dietary restrictions?’ We need everything to be accessible: We need schools to be, we need parties to be, we need Pride parades to be, we need bars to be, we need parenting groups to be, we need virtual events to be. Being a good ally means advocating for accessibility everywhere you go.” — Alaina Leary, communications manager for We Need Diverse Books, professor and journalist

Like any strong friendship, truly understanding disability takes time. All disabled people have their own versions of the talk, and it’s up to their non-disabled friends to welcome, support and grow from them. Take things slowly, and add snacks when needed. But most importantly, enjoy the company of someone who is just as layered as you are. That’s how you join the disability advocacy club, where membership is always open.

Kelly Dawson is a writer, editor and media consultant based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

P.S. How to navigate a special needs encounter, and 11 reader comments on friendship.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)