Relationships

On Becoming Friends With a Non-Disabled Person

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.)

  1. Allison says...

    Thank you for this great article! One logistical issue I wanted to point out- there is a video ad that keeps popping up for Wendy’s and every time it comes up it jumps back up to the top of the page. I hadn’t experienced this before so don’t know if it is a new ad form, but It is very frustrating to lose your place in reading so just thought you should know how the ads are impacting the experience.

    • Maureen says...

      Thanks for letting us know Allison! We will look into this right away.

  2. Darla Jones says...

    Thank you for meeting the stares with a “hello.” You said they will make small talk after that. What about when they don’t look at you at all?
    Personally I smile and say hello first to the disabled person. But I wonder if that makes them feel just as bad. Because I don’t smile and say hello to most people. Thus does that make me bad that I extend them extra kindness? These days with so many being offended by so much, it’s hard to tell anymore.

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      Hi! I actually would love it if non-disabled strangers didn’t acknowledge me in public—they don’t seem to acknowledge each other quite as often, if at all. I smile and small talk when I know I’m being stared at, but then I have to stop thinking about my grocery list, what I actually need at Target, and the thousand other things on everyone’s minds (and that doesn’t factor in if I’m having a bad day). When I smile and small talk, I’m putting the other person’s needs before mine, setting aside a few minutes so that the next time they see a disabled person they won’t give them the same off-putting stare they gave me. I’m very used to it, and it’s mostly no big deal, but it happens all the time. And knowing that my non-disabled friends don’t have to do this can be frustrating. So, I think it’s best to just keep your focus on you, and let the disabled person go about their day, too.

  3. brook says...

    I work for a higher ed program supporting underrepresented students in STEM. My program provides student services, but are continually working to change the institution to better serve all students. The students we work with have different starting points as many of their peers due to life circumstances outside of their control and structural inequity. The ADA is one of our inspirations in our work. By reconceptualizing the institution, it can serve ALL students better. By designing for accessibility by ALL, EVERYBODY benefits. Accessibility is not about saving or helping anybody – it’s to make sure all of us can enjoy the benefits of a built environment that meets all of our many needs throughout our life.

  4. Alice says...

    This is such a great piece, and thank you for writing it Kelly! One person that I would also love to recommend is the hilarious British comedian Rosie Jones, who has cerebral palsy too. I’ve seen her perform live a fair few times now and she’s always so on point.

  5. This is so wonderful and Kelly is such a talent (not saying that because I know her but because I’m always inspired by her badassery).

    My oldest brother was born with severe non-verbal cerebral palsy. The pitfalls of society’s lack of accessibility has been something I got to know very early on in life. Anytime my family went out, it was a barrage of stares, of pity or confusion or frankly maybe even disgust looking back at us. My brother is no longer with us, but his spirit and needs are always at the forefront of my mind for others like him. Thank you for providing a platform to read Kelly’s experiences, and I look forward to more!

  6. Ann Schindler says...

    As a 27-year old with CP that also makes me walk with an obvious limp (that looks like I’m bouncing along lol), this piece makes my heart sing. I love what you said about smiling at those that stare at you….I do that too. Not an easy thing and it takes a ton of grace and not taking their stares personally. I also love the phrase “How can I help you do what you’re already doing?” Yasssss! What a fabulous phrase that kids should be taught in school (seriously!). It takes out the mental work that I have often to do when someone asks me if they can help me and I have to tell myself “Oh hey self-esteem, they’re just being nice. Try to Relax.” Thank you for also quoting from Alice Wong…I really want to read her new book…it looks so good…and is especially relevant during the 30th anniversary of the ADA.

  7. JB says...

    I read this post when it first went live, and I keep going to it because, well, it’s so lovely. I’m the mother of a child with special needs and it’s so important to share these stories out with other people to get another perspective on other people’s lives. Thank you for putting a spotlight on this. Love

  8. Lauren says...

    I love making new friends too!

  9. Donna says...

    Kelly, I was wondering if you could help me navigate something. We fairly recently became friends with someone who was born with only one arm. I know it was from birth because a mutual friend told me before we met. We have spent quite a bit of time with this person since and neither she nor I have said anything about it. My thought was that she’s an adult and knows how manage this for herself, so if she doesn’t bring it up, I’m not going to. But I also don’t want her to think that it makes me uncomfortable or that I’m avoiding it. This includes times where I thought she might need some accommodations but didn’t ask because she’s never said anything. This also completely goes against my nature because as a special ed teacher, I work with my students on self-advocacy, so I’m actually very comfortable talking about disabilities. Do you think I should continue to let her take the lead and not say anything? Thank you!!

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      Hi Donna! I’m happy to see if I can help. I have acquaintances who I’ve never had the talk with, friends I had the talk with after a couple of months, and friends I had the talk with right away. It always depends on how I’m feeling personally, the read I’m getting off the other person, and how prominently my disability is factoring into whatever we’re up to. For instance, I always met one good friend for seated fun—like restaurants or a movie—and so I didn’t bring it up right away (turns out, she was making those plans intentionally). My ceramics friend saw how I was adapting the class to fit my needs, so I knew I should talk to her about it right off the bat. So, I wouldn’t feel bad if you’re thinking, “Why hasn’t the talk happened?” because there could be so many reasons. If it is something that’s on your mind and you suspect it’s on your friend’s mind, I would pull her aside (or call her) and say something like, “So I want to make sure that I’m being a good friend in regard to your disability. I know it’s something we haven’t talked about before, but I want to let you know that I’m here to listen to whatever you’d like to tell me about it. And if you’d rather not talk about it right now, that’s cool, too. I’m not going anywhere.”

      Also, one more thing to consider: I’m in my 30s, so I’ve had time to really learn about and accept my disability. I was definitely more guarded about it when I was younger, even up to just a few years ago.

      Hopefully this helps! xo

    • Donna says...

      Thank you! That’s very helpful. She’s in her mid 30s and a couple of times something has come up and she didn’t say anything directly, so I think I’ll continue to follow her lead. For example, she was going to watch my daughter with her daughter and we had two double strollers – one with a bar and one with two handles that I find hard to push with one hand. I asked her if I should get out the one with the bar, and she just said that either would be fine without directly saying anything about her arm. I felt like I gave her an opening to say something if she wanted to, but of course I really have no idea.

    • Linda Nelson says...

      I really like that you have concerns for this friend’s feelings in regards to her disability Donna. I am a lifer, born with cerebral palsy, and as a child it was hard to constantly be asked “why do you walk like that” or “what’s wrong with you? Are you retarded (yes that really happened, a lot)” so it can be a bit much to be asked all the time. That being said, I agree with Kelly and the idea of “it depends on the situation” and how I feel about it at that moment. I need lots of help now (I am 55) and I have to bring up my issues often, with friends and strangers, when I need a hand but I don’t always give out the full diagnosis. I like it when people who are new friends ask questions, I am never offended and knowledge is power. It often has become a pathway to them being a really helpful great friend, they understand what my needs are and also come to know that I will always ASK for help, they don’t need to jump in and DO for me. I have a dear friend who is so worried I will fall she literally walks backwards in front of me (how deadly for her!) to point out possible trip hazards. She is so into making sure I do not fall, it is distracting which may cause me to fall. I finally had to say STOP what you are doing. We laughed over it, she was a bit embarrassed until I said how much it meant to me that she cared so deeply for my safety. That said, my college friends all carried bandaids in case I fell. Friends are truly the best, they accept you for you. So just be a good friend and let the information about health stuff fall as it may.
      In my 30s I was pretty self sufficient and with a lot more energy. This woman is probably just living her life and does not think about IT all the time, I often forget about my situation and can be shocked when someone asks. When it is your reality, sometimes it just is what it is and you don’t spend time mulling it over.

    • Melissa says...

      Hi Donna, I was born without a left hand. It’s good of you to think about your new friend’s feelings. First, she doesn’t have to bring it up or explain anything – it’s important that you see her as an individual, not an exhibit, or worse, an object lesson. Everyone always wants to know “WHAT” happened, and when you are born with an amputation, it is not an exciting story. People are looking for drama and when they don’t get it, they are disappointed. Lots of people want to be inspired by their disabled friends. That is not their responsibility. Some people want to feel good about helping their disabled friend. Not a good experience for the disabled person who wants to be known and cared for as a human being, not a project. It maybe that your friend does not bring it up because she does not define herself by her missing limb and does not want to be defined by others as a person with a missing limb. She doesn’t need help or accommodation – that is why she is not asking. I don’t bring it up when I meet people because however fixated they might be, my missing arm is not me. They can be weird about it and ask another person who knows, or ask my children (!), but it’s absolutely no one’s business. I have found that the more I talk about it or explain, the more people think it’s going to be a popular topic, and I’m not interested in talking about it all the time. If your friend has had this missing limb all her life, she has been dealing with people’s reactions all her life. She knows people notice. What she is showing by not bringing it up is that she doesn’t want it to be the most important thing about her. She’s giving you the opportunity to get to know her without an emphasis on her disability. And one day, if you continue to be friends, she will feel she can trust you and might acknowledge it briefly. And later, if you are very close, you might feel like you can ask her about it, but think about your questions first, because your curiosity is about you. I have been hurt many times by people who think they can ask questions that show they have judged me and pitied me. Not good. So, leave it alone and let her be ordinary – I promise you she feels like an ordinary person and gets tired of being seen as anything else. Be her friend and think of her arm is a birthmark you’re just going to forget about after awhile – she’s not pointing it out, so neither should you.

  10. Kathryn says...

    At 35, I became paralyzed from the chest down overnight from Transverse Myelitis, a rare neurological illness. It’s the same one that halted the AstraZeneca vaccine trial.

    Twenty months later, I now walk with trekking poles, and am continuing to improve. My perspective on virtually everything has shifted. I hate to hear people in my life complain about petty inconveniences. They don’t even know! I joke that I could out-complain and out-sick most people, but I don’t because what a waste of a beautiful day on earth. BUT, if I were to complain, it would be on the use of these words: journey, inspiration, and hero! Hah..

  11. Mouse says...

    My husband and I built our house about 10 years ago when we were in our 50s and 60s. I mean we actually built it; he’s a timber-framer. One of the decisions we made early on was to have it be as accessible as possible, both for our friends and for our older age. We watched a friend’s elderly mother become very depressed due to her increasing immobility and also watched as our friends struggled to get her into a “normal” house, with steps and narrow doorways etc. Although we built a half second story, we can move downstairs if and when we need to, and all the doorways are 3 ft wide, the downstairs bathroom can accommodate a wheelchair, there’s a long ramp to the door, etc etc. We are not strictly ADA compliant, but I think it will work. It seems incredibly short-sighted to build new without thinking of the entire population and of one’s own possible future.

  12. Mouse says...

    At one time I worked with a dance company that included disabled dancers and one of them told me that disabled people sometimes refer to the rest of us as “temporarily-abled”. I love that; it puts it all into perspective; we will all eventually deal with some kind of physical or mental issue unless we’re extraordinarily lucky.

    • Agnès says...

      “temporarily abled”, that is such a fair expression, I love it.

  13. lin says...

    This article was informative and fascinating. A lot of food for thought — thank you! My sister used a wheelchair for a couple of years, and spending time with her then made me realize how huge the problem of accessibility is. She also experienced people talking to her as though she were a child, simply because she was in a wheelchair. I have so much more to learn, and society has a long way to go, but articles like this are a good start!

  14. Martha Patterson says...

    Thank you, thank you, thank you…..I’m a special ed. teacher, and parent to a young adult with high functioning autism. It is amazing how people react to those with disabilities, those that are visible or not. As an educator, I see those with physical disabilities tend to be treated much kinder than those that are invisible, are neurotypical. In the documentary Crip Camp, activist Judy Huemann says, “I shouldn’t have to be grateful for getting an accessible bathroom!’ I am so tired of a society that expects those with disabilities to adjust…it should be the other way around!

  15. kat says...

    Thank you for this piece powerful piece, Kelly!! One of my fav lines, “How can I help you do what you’re already doing?” Brilliant. Also love reading all the comments… just FYI kelly is my friend (/cousin) and she totally lives up the hype. So grateful to have this witty/hilarious/amazing human in my life!!

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      Kat!! You’re the sweetest, thank you! And I’m so proud of you and all you do. If you all want to see a funny, uplifting, and all-around great documentary (that Kat happened to direct and star in) check out “Finding Big Country.” I’m completely biased, but it really is wonderful.

      https://www.amazon.com/Finding-Big-Country-Kathleen-Jayme/dp/B07V4THL9Z

  16. Jessica says...

    Kelly, thank you for sharing this. My two boys both have genetically-linked mobility issues, and while I *think* we’re doing a good job of advocating for them and modeling how to react to questions, they’ll soon encounter social situations without us in which people might be less than kind. As a parent of two small kids, I crave stories from young adults and older people with disabilities and differences about how they are navigating the upcoming phases of life. I learn something every time. I’m so glad you wrote what you did, and that you also included other amazing people’s perspectives.

    Thank you.

  17. anni says...

    Thank you!

  18. sadie says...

    cup of jo with another incredible post that has had me thinking so much. thank you. thank you. thank you.

  19. Lee says...

    What a great post. Thank you.

  20. Alma says...

    Thank you for this.

    I’d love to see an article about having or being a disabled romantic partner (from both perspectives). My husband is disabled, and his particular disability introduces changes into so many aspects of our lives. It’s a unique dynamic that I rarely see addressed.

    Grateful for this content.

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      I would love more of these stories, too! Romantic relationships are definitely a different ball game than friendships when it comes to disability. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

    • lex says...

      me too- my husband is disabled as well. We both work in the disability nonprofit world, and I would love to hear about more partnerships where disability is part of our intimate space.

    • Linda Nelson says...

      I would also like to see romance, relationships, issues due to disabilities addressed. I was in a long marriage that ended partly due to my spouse tiring of my life long issues with my cerebral palsy. I would love to see dating and disability discussions. I feel that door to my life has shut but I would love to fling it open.

    • Lex Owen says...

      Wondering if anybody knows of or is a part of any good online communities for nondisabled-disabled romantic & life partnerships. I haven’t been able to find any!

    • Victoria says...

      This is a really interesting point. I’ve read leaflets on the practical side of disabled relationships, the NHS does them. I actually think a lot of the standard relationship advice works; talk to your partner about likes and dislikes (go and no go areas in terms of disability), remember to laugh, set stuff up so that the aftermath of an intimate encounter is as easy as possible. That might mean having tissues handy, planning two hours rest time after, or kicking him/her/them (metaphorically) out of bed to fetch you ice packs 🙂 But I’m in a long term relationship and we built up to that level of openness and built it in just like the rest of a relationship.

      Some of the harder stuff I’ve found works for non-intimate times too, when you’re shopping or crafting or anything. So “yes, it does hurt, no it’s not your fault, yes I want to keep going because it always hurts/it’s worth it, if you could just move to the left a bit”.

      Not sure if you can get them online but in the UK Malteasers has had a series of tv ads with the main characters having disabilities and talking to friends about dating/intimacy going wrong and being able to laugh about it. I was surprised and pleased to see disability so openly in an ad that wasn’t about disability, if you see what I mean.

  21. liz says...

    love this essay and the writing. thanks for sharing

  22. Kimberly says...

    THANK YOU for posting this article. As a woman with an “invisible” disability–and a 5 year old with the same, it is so important to give a voice to all of us and stop the feelings of shame for not being able-bodied. We have a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy where we appear “normal” a lot of the time but then can experience varying levels of weakness that can range from the inability to make a fist to head-to-toe attacks of full paralysis that can last for hours or days. Growing up it was harder to control and I remember many instances of friends in school staring and saying things like “why are you walking funny?” or “what’s wrong with your eyes?” and I carried around a tremendous amount of insecurity and shame because it was something that our family treated as a secret only to be shared with the most trusted people in our lives. I now struggle with seeing this disease affect my sweet daughter and the fear and sadness in her eyes when she has an episode and it rips my heart out. I see the stares and the pity on faces when I have to help her walk after a long car ride and she can’t lift her legs. I know that the lack of understanding is what drives the looks but that’s not OK with me.

    She started Kindergarten this week and I am making it my mission to end the shame and secrecy that I experienced growing up. I’m telling her teachers how to accommodate her. I’m telling other parents. I’m teaching her to recognize how it feels when it starts to flare up and to let the teacher know that she needs to get up and move around. I want her to understand that while it will sometimes be difficult, she is strong and is not defined by it.

    Thank you for giving a voice to the disabled, Kelly and COJ. We are a group that needs the respect and consideration of others and these articles help us get a little closer! <3

    • Jessica says...

      Kimberly, I just want to affirm you, as a person and as a mom, and say how lucky your daughter is to have YOU with your particular experiences as her mom. My two boys are ages 6 and 8.5 months. Both were born with bilateral clubfoot (not a disability in its own right) along with a form of arthrogryposis that affects their ability to move in typical ways. The baby is more affected than my eldest. It’s super rare, and it’s not usually genetic, so we’re a bit of an odd case. However, I’m so glad the two will have each other as co-navigators through life, especially since I know there will be situations they encounter, and decisions they’ll have to make, that will go beyond what I feel equipped to handle as their mom (though I’m doing my level best).

      I am so moved by how you are using your hard-won knowledge and experience to pave a way for your daughter, and to model the “missing pieces” for her. May it bring you healing, too.

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Kimberly! And thank you for the awareness you’re giving to your daughter’s community—and the agency you’re giving her. My parents did the exact same thing for me, and it made such a difference.

  23. Jill says...

    This was a beautiful essay, thanks for sharing! I also went clicking back to CoJ’s essay last year on children navigating an encounter with a special needs child. Both such insightful and helpful perspectives, I’m so glad the blog is featuring this kind of writing!

  24. Cindy says...

    Thank you so much for this article, Kelly, and for your seemingly indomitable spirit. I am equipped to do better as a result of this work.

  25. Iris says...

    Thank you so much for this, from someone who is a healthcare provider who works with folks navigating these issues and a mother of a little kid who moves differently because of neurologic differences. <3

  26. Jessica says...

    When my MIL had her leg amputated, it opened my eyes to how hard and how isolating the world can be for disabled people. Its the little things you don’t think of when you are able bodied. We would go to a public restroom that had the wheelchair symbol on the door to suggest it was wheelchair accessible, but often this was just barely so. The door would open electronically but the wheelchair could barely fit once inside and there would be no way she could reach the sink to wash her hands. She would need me to come in with her and help her manoeuvre. Trying to do all this while maintaining dignity was such a challenge. Or we’d be out for a walk in the winter but people would do such a poor job of clearing the snow off the walkways, we would struggle over the snow and often have to resort to being on the road. When I would call to make a restaurant reservation, I would have to have a long talk about how accessible their restaurant REALLY was, knowing what details to look for. It taught me to look at the world through a different lens and really recognize how strong disabled people have to be to do the simplest every day tasks most people take for granted.

  27. Candace says...

    This article really resonated with me. It is beautifully written and shares important insights. I’m the hearing Mama of a 2.5 year old Deaf son and was thrust farther into this world than I had ever been before after he was born. This article touches on a big part of the problem – the fact that the abled and disabled experiences are different enough to be thought of as different worlds. So much more advocacy and awareness-building needs to be done and I love, love, love that this audience is engaging with this post and that CupOfJo is featuring it. xoxoxo
    p.s. It sounds exhausting to always engage with staring strangers and being on the positivity offensive. Thank you for sharing how much energy it takes for you to put others at ease. I hope that lessens.
    p.p.s. If anyone is looking for an awesome read, Haben Girma’s memoir, “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law” belongs on everyone’s bookshelves.

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      Thanks so much. I just bought that book, thanks for the recommendation!

  28. Cynthia says...

    Thank you for sharing this with us. I’ve dealt with disabilities with family members, so I understand the difficulties people with disabilities face.

  29. Ellen says...

    this is wonderful! as a “ambulatory wheelchair user” (ie someone who can get in and out of my chair easily) I have only recently been convincing myself that its ok for my friends to see how hard some things are for me and to expect spaces to be accessible. My habit was to do something like hop out of my chair, drag it up the steps as quick as possible and say to everyone staring “its fine, its fine” … or to use my crutches when I knew a space would be inaccessible –inconveniencing myself in order to not embarrass or burden anyone else. This is so hard to unlearn but I will follow your example and give my friends the chance to become my allies <3

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      I used to do this all the time! It’s super hard to unlearn the feeling of being a burden, but you got this. My sister and our friends once went to a music festival and I didn’t want to “inconvenience” anyone’s fun by bringing my wheelchair (I use it for long distances or times when I know it’s going to be a ton of walking). My sister said, “You’re bringing it, or you’re not coming.” And then once we were there a friend said, “If you apologize to anyone for pushing you, we’re not talking to you.” Tough love, baby! xo

    • Victoria says...

      What great friends Ellen!

      I use a wheelchair occasionally and I hate the looks when I stand up. People look like you’ve been cheating them out of their space in the queue or their good will at smiling at the wheelchair person.

    • Victoria says...

      Sorry, I was responding to Ellen’s message but was talking about Kelly’s friends. I just read my comment back and realised it could sound really sarcastic to Ellen, which is not what I meant!

  30. Katie says...

    Thank you so, so much for featuring Kelly and these important perspectives! I have so much more to learn about implicit bias, and making room for everyone at the table. Kelly, thank you for being willing to share your life with us.

  31. Julie says...

    One of my best friends lost her leg as a teenager, a full avulsion from the hip-it’s been a learning experience to walk around the city with her, go to sporting events, use cabs, use the subway, pick out restaurants (so many don’t have wheelchair ramps!). Before we were friends I never considered what it means for a resident or business to not shovel their sidewalk, or for a big city like Philadelphia to have multiple subway stations whose elevators don’t work. She’s shown me so much but I still have so much work to do to be better as a non-disabled person. I’ll be checking out that hashtag, I need to reup my bookshelf.

    Thank you for this lovely article.

  32. Rebecca Torres says...

    Thank you so much Kelly! My 7 year old twins have spastic diplegic CP and we’re in the middle of another round of grueling orthopedic surgery. I am extremely aware of social interactions with both adults (also please do not as parents questions about their disabled child that the child can answer for themselves) and children at this age but have just recently started to think about the modeling of social interactions I need to be doing for them as they move into their teenage and adult years. So complicated and exhausting that I feel so much less social myself now. Like you only have so much mental and emotional bandwidth left after covering physical and parenting needs before everything else each day. Such good food for thought.

    • LIndsay says...

      I also have a 7 year old with spastic displegia. This article made my day!

  33. Elspeth says...

    Love this!

  34. I’m deaf myself, and I also have vision limitations (if you wish to put a label on it, it’s Usher’s syndrome).

    And this line struck me the most: “I wish that non-disabled people made accessibility a priority all the time, not just when they believe someone will need it.”

    This is why I created an online course called Accessibility Made Easy because accessibility isn’t a priority, and it’s a struggle every day to feel part of the online world. I know that I still have a lot of learning to do because the initial foundation did start because I am deaf, and so much is not accessible to me, but I tried to build up on resources that cover a variety of disabilities. I’m learning so much more beyond this.

    A second note — as I watched The Social Dilemma, which I’m only half way through yet. The people who create these platforms to connect people, failed the general population, but also have failed us (people with disabilities) in a huge way because we’re CONSTANTLY left out of things with new technical advances. Accessibility is not a priority for those who design these platforms, despite laws being in place, but the laws are not up to date… that’s a whole other issue.

    • Yes! And if things were accessible as a default, people with less common access needs would be able to join in more – we don’t see most of the people who are currently excluded, BECAUSE they’re excluded. Improving access without knowing specifically who might need it will help us find out who needed it!

  35. Lydia Williams says...

    Excellent post! Heartfelt meet cutes, exhaustion, reality, instruction…! Something that can be shared gently, correctively or just for sweetness’ sake. I want to remember the line, “Suddenly, getting around the world is measured in energy and obstacles, and not just in distance and time” for the rest of my life when I have to explain why accessibility consideration is important. I’ve just popped over to your website and cant wait to read more. Thank you!

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      Thank you! This brought tears to my eyes. xoxo

  36. Meghan says...

    My heart lept when I saw “non-disabled” included in a COJ title! Thank you for sharing such a beautiful piece.

    • Meghan says...

      Also wanted to add: one way you can make the world more accessible for disabled people right now is by wearing a mask!! It’s exhausting to always have to be the one insisting on masks, knowing that if I wasn’t there my friends probably wouldn’t be wearing them. It’s hard to receive their apologetic looks – I feel bad for making them feel bad, but also feel angry that they’re putting me in the position of having to constantly remind them of one of the most vulnerable things about me. I saw a tweet from a disabled activist – I can’t remember the author or the exact quote, but it was something about not being able to go back to normal after knowing all these people were willing to sacrifice my life rather than make different decisions. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

    • Really good point about the masks. Everyone should be remembering anyway that people around them might have a vulnerability they don’t know about.

  37. Shana says...

    Kelly, you’re an incredible writer!

  38. YCR says...

    Powerful and informative piece. Thank you!!

  39. Emma says...

    I just took a quick inventory of my bookcase and I don’t think I have ONE book by an author with a disability. Yikes! Looks like I have some homework to do. Thank you, Kelly, for your thoughtful post. And thank you CupOfJo for sharing content that always makes me think think and grow.

  40. Amanda H says...

    Thank you so much for this! My son, aunt and friend have (dis)abilities (non visible and visible) and it is so important for us to center these kinds of stories and voices! Neurodivergent and differently abled folks have taught me so much about resilience and thinking differently. How joyful that we are all different! Thank you for sharing your story. xx

  41. Ashley says...

    This is such a beautiful article — I cried a bit. My younger brother has cerebral palsy and has a similar ability – he makes friends everywhere that he goes.

  42. Linda Nelson says...

    Fantastic article. I also have CP and face this challenge daily. I make friends everywhere I go, apparently people are “drawn to me” as my friends all tell me, a lot! I absolutely love that someone would ask, how can I further help you rather than just leaping in to help. Most of my friends know to ask that question and not just do something for me off the cuff. I will ask complete strangers for a hand and 3 minutes later we are usually chatting. I think of my outgoing nature and natural draw as a super power that helps diminish the physical limitations. Thank you for writing this.

    • Candace says...

      “…I think of my outgoing nature and natural draw as a super power…” I love this and hope my Deaf son’s effervescent and extroverted characteristics will be part of his super powers as he grows up too!

  43. Katrina says...

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  44. Wendy says...

    Thank you for sharing this. I have two second cousins with disabilities, one is 15 and has CP but more severe, he was born premature – he still has a feeding tube, 2 different types of pacemakers, has had hip replacement surgeries, I believe he has had over 22 surgeries, the amazing thing is they live in Pittsburgh and he loves honking horns, so his mom and twin brother take him out in their van with a sign “Beep for B-Man” – if you google that you will see news stories on him and find his facebook and instagram. Its brought great awareness. He is so amazing and has the best sense of humor. My other second cousin had low functioning autism at the age of 21 and is 6’4 tall. His height draws attention and he has to wear noise cancelling headphones to keep him calm. I have ADHD and was known as the hyper kid growing up — there was a big stigma to that because my grades were bad. Again – thank you for this message.

  45. CS says...

    I am a teacher. Years ago, right before school started in September, I received a letter from a boy who was going to be starting grade 10. It was the most charming letter, filled with humour (he signed it, “ Your soon to be new-favourite student” Lol!) It explained that he had made the choice to sacrifice his voice through an operation that would enable him to inhale more oxygen.
    In the years that followed, I got to know this fine person better. I sometimes wonder, if he had not given me that letter that sparkled with his personality, would I have realized what a lovely and whole person was sitting silently in that wheelchair with a respirator? If his condition had simply been presented to me in a medical way, would I have misinterpreted his silence? There was something in that experience that made me truly appreciate how much more there is to a person than is overtly evident – how much depth we can silently carry within us. Since then, I have always listened for it more carefully in the people around me.

    • Agnès says...

      That is quite a story and really made me think; I’m a teacher to and it’s true that silences should absolutely be treated with care…

    • Julie says...

      Thank you for sharing this story. The depth can silently carry with us is something we all can understand. Beautifully said.

    • Lauren says...

      This comment really spoke to me as a mama of a little boy with complex medical needs. It’s been said to me more then once when a medical professional meets us for the first time “oh, what a lovely little guy, I wasn’t expecting that based on his chart”. Oof, so thank you for honouring the human and learning from your experience.

  46. Kaitlyn says...

    Beautiful essay, COJ you’re such a wonderful place on the internet!

  47. Beth Chu says...

    Great post!!!!!! Thank you!

  48. Jo says...

    Kelly you sound awesome and *exactly * like the kind of person I like to make friends with. Your essay is great.
    And Jo and team – thank you so much for continuing to publish articles like this. This corner of the internet is making me a better human.

  49. Elizabeth says...

    What an awesome essay. I’d love another post from this author on all of those wrong things people say!

  50. Mrs N says...

    “How can I help you do what you’re already doing?” This sums it up perfectly. Thank you.

  51. Lily says...

    Yes!! I am so grateful to my disabled friends for showing me so much stuff that was right in front of my face, but that I never noticed: that the areas a grad student could afford to live in are also the neighborhoods with shitty sidewalks, for example, or how a few accomodations can welcome someone into a yoga class. Truly grateful for the effort this kind of “disability spokesperson” work takes, I try to pay it forward and be “worth the effort.”

    Therefore:

    Just one note, which is that after the excellent comments that “we all have needs!” in the link disabled people are described as being “special needs.” :)

  52. Carla says...

    As a mother, when my son and I see someone on the street with a disability, I would often tell him not to say anything, no pointing, no staring, just keep going. Now I am not sure if I am actually teaching something wrong to my son or hurting the stranger.

    • Shelley says...

      I think it’s acceptable for your son to be curious and you should encourage him to smile and say hi and ask a question if he wants to. Just explain that some people are unique. This is just my opinion! I would love to hear other options. This is what I do with my sons. They absolutely love wheel chairs, or anything with wheels for that matter so they are always excited and curious when they see walkers and wheel chairs. I haven’t encountered any other situations with them. People seem happy or at least okay to talk to them about their wheelchair or walker. Again, I’d love to hear any other perspectives on this.

    • Vero says...

      I’ve been in this situation too with the little kids I take care of. I usually say something to the effect of how everyone is different and some people need equipment to help them get around and go for a walk, just like we are doing. Just my opinion but I think kids DO notice difference sometime and rather than rushing them along or hoping they don’t say something that is hurtful, we can affirm that they are noticing difference and that difference is okay and good, and maybe make eye contact with that person, smile or say hello if they are close by. Helping kids get comfortable with difference instead of becoming uncomfortable with difference.

    • Jordan G says...

      I think about this previous post all the time as a mom to two unfiltered 4-year olds. It’s so helpful, and I’ve shared it with many friends.

      https://cupofjo.com/2019/03/special-needs-encounter/

      Whenever my kids point out the differences of other people, I ask them to be gentle in the way they word things and say something like, “Isn’t that awesome that we’re all different? Wouldn’t it be boring if we were all the same?!”

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      I love to go for walks around my neighborhood, especially these days. Recently, a little kid pointed at me and said, “Mom, what is she doing?” and the mom responded, “Going for a walk, just like us.” It was so heartwarming. I’ll always answer kids’ questions and acknowledge their curiosity, and it often becomes a learning moment for their parents, too. Thanks for reading!

  53. Agnès says...

    That was such a great post; at the university where I work there is a whole department of disability studies (I think that what you would say in english), and it’s all about discussing topics (any), and writing history from disabled persons. It has been so enlightening for every one. Things are changing (never fast enough though). I think social media are a great tool.

    • Agnès says...

      I mean writing History from the point of view of disabled persons (not their personal story).

  54. Karin says...

    Thank you for this. Spending time with an aging parent who uses a walker and oxygen but still wants to participate in the world has opened my eyes to how few public spaces are designed for people who have trouble walking, seeing, hearing or moving. Once you start noticing it, it is incredibly frustrating to see how people are systematically excluded in ways that most of us don’t even think about, and the ways that can limit their lives without active efforts to fight it.

    • C says...

      Lovely essay :)

      I have mild CP and it can be infuriating how intrusive people are with their inquiries about my unique gait. I have yet to find a fully gracious response. Thanks for sharing!

  55. Lauren C says...

    Thank you for this hugely important essay. Thank you Kelly Dawson and thanks for the shared thoughts from other disabled persons. xo

  56. Carrie says...

    I’m hearing impaired and legally blind (Usher Syndrome) and I feel like so many able bodied people pass me up for friendship due to fear, ignorance or pity. The able bodied people that truly get it are the ones that understand I have just as much to offer them as they do to me, don’t belittle me or perceive themselves as superior and intuitively understand how to communicate clearly or what situations might be challenging. They are rare gems but when I meet people like this, it almost makes up for the atrocious day to day treatment received from the general public.

  57. Alison says...

    Thank you for continuing these diverse posts! I just finished reading Rebekah Taussig’s book, Sitting Pretty, and not sure I would have discovered her (and followed her book publishing) if not for the week of outfits feature this spring. So sad to think that I might have missed her as we share a city and I found her writing about access in KC to be so enlightening. Her chapter on feminism – no words – it was so, so good.

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      Yes! I absolutely loved her book, she’s an incredible writer. I hope to go back to Kansas City one day!

  58. JC says...

    I am a person who is the process of accepting that I have a disability. So much of this journey has been recognizing the way my own internalized abelism has held me in fear. Thank you for choosing a writer who is sharing a more balanced version of life with a disability.

  59. dana says...

    Does anyone happen to have any recommendations for children and YA books that either have characters with disabilities or deal with the general concept of disabilities/differences?

    • Katie says...

      Try The Adventures of Frank and Mustard.
      My sister gave them to my kids. They’ve really enjoyed them. They’re all about how much Frank can do when he has help. In the two we have, he surfs and enjoys walks in the forest.

    • RT says...

      Gillette Children’s Hospital has published a book titled “It’s OK to Ask!” and we’ve gifted it to every elementary classroom in our school <3 https://nancycarlson.com/its-okay-to-ask/

  60. K says...

    A lovely post – thank you for this great essay!

  61. Katy says...

    This piece of of writing was an absolute pleasure to read. I am embarrassed to admit it also sparked some face palm moments for myself.

    Thank you for sharing so eloquently for the rest of us to learn. I think I would very much like to be your friend!

  62. Kim says...

    Thank you so much for sharing this. There is still such a long way to go in making our world more inclusive for those with disabilities, and sharing this is a great way to elevate awareness.

  63. Allie says...

    I was briefly friends with a blind woman in graduate school. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was one of the most unique friendships I’ve ever had. Conversation was the sole focus of our relationship. No talk of bar plans or outfits. I haven’t met another disabled person since (that isn’t also elderly or outwardly obvious). Now I’m gonna go look for one, haha.

    • Lauren says...

      Hey you know elderly disabled people can be interesting friends too ?

  64. Brooke says...

    We are awaiting a CP diagnosis for my son. Having a child with a disability has made me reflect on my relationship to ableism and the major changes I need to make to my mindset and the advocacy I hope to do for my son and this diverse community. I am slowly making peace and accepting it all and hearing stories like this are really important. I can’t express how much reading this piece means to me. Thank you so much Kelly!

    • Linda Jo Nelson says...

      Your strength and courage will show your son strength and courage. Not just in relation to his disability but in every facet of life. My mom and dad, who adopted me as an infant and had to battle to actually be allowed to adopt me (long story), fought for everything-from the treatments and care I received, to making sure I viewed myself as a fully capable person who just got to the finish line more slowly and differently. They were the masters of “do your best, always, and if you fail or fall, get up and try again” and this has carried me through my life. Mourn the what could of been with your son, then stand tall and go forward into the what is, making him the strongest and most centered person you can. He will love you all the more for your support and encouragement and for being allowed to struggle. My parents cheered but never coddled, supported but never carried. You will do amazing things from this point forward with your son, they will just be a bit different.

    • Ann says...

      Hi Brooke,

      I am a 27 year old with CP and the best advice my parents got from my doctor was “Don’t put limitations on what Ann can do…if there’s a will, there’s a way.” Those few words shaped the positive perceptions I (and my parents) have about my CP. Please reach out via email if you have any questions…happy to chat. :)

      xoxo

  65. Allison says...

    I just want to say thank you! I have a disability and I made a comment on a previous Cup of Jo article that we needed more diverse representation from adults with disabilities on this website and since then you have listened and showcased some incredible content. I feel heard! And including theses voices just makes for richer content. Thank you so much for listening. And bravo for highlighting these voices!

    • Naomi says...

      ?

  66. Amy says...

    This is wonderful. I learned a lot – thank you to Kelly and the other contributors for sharing their experiences. As a society, we need to do better. Thanks to CoJ for making space for more voices!

  67. Meghan says...

    Thank you! This is a great post. <3

  68. Tracy says...

    This is an excellent post , maybe one of my all time favorites.

    Thank you for this . Thank you so much.

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      I’m crying. Thank you, and you’re welcome! xo

  69. Ceciel says...

    Nothing About Us Without Us is such a right on slogan from the disability rights movements (I don’t know the original author/s. Please comment if you do.).

    • Carlyn says...

      It’s been traced back to disability rights activists in South Africa (Michael Masutha and William Rowland); but one of my favorite things about this slogan is that it has been invoked and used as such a rallying cry so much over time, it feels like it just sprung up in the whole community’s collective consciousness all at once. <3

  70. Mary says...

    Thank you for this article. It really made me reflect on how I’ve interacted with friends and coworkers with different abilities, and provided necessary suggestions to be better moving forward. Your post last year on how to navigate a special needs encounter led me to check out When Charley Met Emma and I love reading it to my daughter. We are both better thanks to the voices you share on Cup of Jo.

  71. Nicola says...

    I listen to the great ‘TooPeas’ podcast and love how Kate and Mandy explain that ‘we’re all somebody’s rectum’ ie we are all capable of saying that truly insensitive and horrendous thing to another person. Thinking about that has changed all my interactions with people (plus the word rectum is just the best)

    • Nicola says...

      Ps if you’re ever looking for more subjects for beauty uniform I’d love to see Kate or Mandy (or both!)

      http://toopeasinapodcast.com.au/

  72. Carlyn says...

    Thank you for this beautiful piece and the representation on CoJ. I am crying! I have been a longtime reader of the blog and I have cerebral palsy. Seeing myself represented here is so emotional. I even have a photograph identical to the drawing at the beginning of this post! I work in higher education research studying disability identity development, and I keep thinking about what it would have been like to read this as a teenager. I am so grateful that the world is opening up so much to allyship and real relationships and learning around disability. Please, more of this!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Now I’m crying, Carlyn! Thank you so much for your comment.

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      I totally didn’t mean to say this for my own essay hahah. This was for Carlyn’s comment above!

  73. Amanda says...

    Posts like this are exactly why I love Cup of Jo. Wonderful writing, thoughtful content.

  74. Katie says...

    This was great, thank you!

    Highly recommend Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution on Netflix. I learned a ton and it was just really interesting.

    Also I stumbled upon this graphic novel about a girl dealing with hearing loss and it’s now one of my daughter’s favorite books-

    https://www.amazon.com/El-Deafo-Cece-Bell/dp/1419712179

    • Kathy says...

      I just watched Crip Camp and I second this! I learned so much and it was a beautifully done documentary that was heart-warming and inspiring. Highly recommend as well!

      I loved this post.

  75. Gillian says...

    Kelly, this piece was so lovely to read — your writing style flows beautifully. I also stalked your Instagram and am a little bit obsessed with your style. Thank you for sharing your words with us!

    • Kelly Dawson says...

      Thanks so much! Let me know what your Instagram is and we can follow each other!

  76. AJ says...

    Really enjoyed this – and also super informative, thank you x

  77. Ceridwen says...

    Thank you Kelly, this is a fantastic piece. Last year, my youngest daughter had cprs. She was in incredible pain all the time and had to use mobility aids. She was 6 turning 7 and my brother was getting married, she was excited to attend but exhausted all the time. So we decorated her mobility aids together with bright flowers and she loved this, it also helped others to engage with her in an open, positive way. It may people smile and people gave her space she needed to get around. She eventually recovered after a lot of work for her and specialists. That time taught us all a lot about access for people with disabilities. And attitudes. Most were helpful, some were not and had a hard time believing her and us. I look at spaces differently now and remember to not to assume. I’m also grateful for what we were taught by others and by my daughter.

  78. Catherine says...

    Thank you so much for sharing this! From a mom to a very special 6 year old boy with CP ❤️

  79. Susan says...

    Wow! Thanks for this. I had a form of cancer when I was a baby that left me blind in my left eye with a prosthetic. I think about it often when meeting new people (I always want to wear sunglasses). When I told a friend whom I was training for a marathon with, she simply said, “oh, I should always run on your right side then” and that was that. It was so kind and thoughtful. I appreciated the respect and consideration. Thanks for this post. It means a lot to me. Xo

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that’s beautiful, Susan. xo

    • aet says...

      I loved reading this and learned a lot, thank you!! My partner has a traumatic brain injury and, from our experience, I would only add the reminder that many disabilities are invisible. He was hit by a car while riding his bike, maintained in a coma for 3 months, and in the 8 years since has experienced chronic pain, seizures, memory loss, dramatic mood fluctuations, inability to smell and taste, paranoia, tinnitus, suicidal ideation, and other effects. He has also developed an incredible ability to (re)learn anything very quickly. Besides a large scar across his skull, visible when he shaves, there is no outward way of knowing what’s going on. His TBI affects our lives in every possible way, and it can feel so frustrating and isolating when people assume the worst, not knowing how hard he is fighting.

    • Caitlin says...

      This is fantastic, absolutely fantastic. Thank you Kelly, and thanks CoJ!

  80. Anne says...

    This may sound stupid but I think I need to role-play talking to disabled people? I know it’s hurtful when I react with awkwardness or discomfort to someone who looks different from me, but in the moment it can be so hard to find the right thing to say or do. I want to do better, but telling myself, “Next time I’ll do better” hasn’t worked yet. Maybe I need to use my actions and practice?

    Thanks Kelly. It shouldn’t be your job to teach people like me how to be better, but I’m grateful that you did this anyway.

    • Hi! That’s ok, I totally understand. Depending on the situation, I think you can just say something like, “I’m excited to chat but I might not say the right thing.” Sometimes just putting it out there that you’re trying will put you and the other person at ease, and then you can either chat about it or not. Thanks for reading my essay!

    • Stella says...

      Thanks for your honesty in this comment, acknowledging these tendencies is important. I don’t think role-play would be appropriate, but there are other ways to normalize disability and center disability advocacy in your life. Here are some things you might do:

      1) Follow disabled folks on social media. make disabled bodies and neurodivergent perspectives more prevalent in your feed – this helps fight the otherization of disabled folks in your brain.

      2) Read/listen and thoughtfully engage with the work of disabled folks. like the advice listed in the post, diversify your bookshelf, your podcast library, your TED talks, and your TV, etc. Non-disabled folks have so much to learn!

      3) When you meet and first interact with disabled people, talk like you would to a non-disabled person. Talk about your interests, your passions, or whatever situation brought you together! Don’t talk down to someone. Don’t congratulate people for doing ordinary things. These can be super belittling! And once you build a relationship with a disabled person and maybe still feel awkward, it’s probably because you’re curious about something. If you feel comfortable, ask your new friend, “can I ask you a question about your disability?” and your friend can say yes or no! In my experience, when you build trust, disabled folks will tell you their access needs and how you can be a better friend.

    • Lauren says...

      Thank you for writing this, and thank you Kelly and Stella for answering. I’m not sure if it’s ok to say but have a problem where I feel this way talking to Black people, like it’s hard for me to stop noticing that they’re Black and I just think about myself and end up not talking about whatever made me want to talk to them in the first place. I don’t have any black friends and one girl in particular I wish I could have got to know. (I grew up with actively racist people and with zero black people around, and I haven’t got over focusing on race too heavily.) If there’s ever someone who’s black who I really want to talk to, maybe I could try saying something like what Kelly suggested first. I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world to show that I’m messed up that way!?

    • Victoria says...

      I think it’s brave to ask the question Anne and Lauren. I have a disability but still, sometimes feel uncomfortable approaching a person with a disability. Diversifying input has helped me, as Stella suggests. I find it really hard sometimes because I’m conscious of where I might be failing, but I don’t know how to change without talking to friends/people I meet/in blog comments, but especially online people are so quick to judgment that you can’t ask a question seeking knowledge without being labelled as a horrible person. I come at it from the best place I can and try to do the work myself.

      I watched a movie which I really enjoyed and at the end I was feeling weird and I realised it was because the main characters were black and being burgled, but they just happened to be black. There was no racist angle to the crime, they just happened to be a black family, and I’m not used to that in the movies advertised to me.
      Over the last two years a quiz show I watch has a lot more questions about women, scientists, artists etc. And the reason I notice is because it was so rare before.

  81. Kate says...

    I just started an Occupational Therapy program and I learn just as much (if not more) from narratives like this as I do in my classes! I’m so grateful for all of these voices and for the resources you shared. I will be saving this post to come back to again and again. I am going to commit to being an ally and not a savior.

    • Joan says...

      Congratulations on starting an OT program! Occupational Therapy is my second career and I am about three very happy years in. The reality is everyone has different abilities and people are very resourceful. I like to think of being a clearinghouse for information on how to manage tasks and situations – learning from my patients/clients and passing it on. Thank you Kelly for your beautiful essay.

  82. Emily says...

    I had a friend who was a quadriplegic for many years. He has since passed, but I’ve always felt so lucky to have known him. Mostly for his tremendous personality, humor, and good looks, but also because he forced me out of my comfort zone when I was right out of college when pretty much everyone is selfish and awkward. I became good friends with someone who I occasionally had to drink their beer, or eat their curried fries. Things I thought I couldn’t/wouldn’t do. Then those acts become perfectly normal and something you don’t think twice about. I’m not perfect by any means but he for sure made me a better person, and we had some great laughs together.

  83. Carla says...

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am able-bodied (temporarily, as we all are) and have recently reflected on how most of my learnings have come out of mistakes because no one really talks about able-ism. For example, I used “wheel-chair bound” and learned that wheelchairs are liberating and not a prison, and that “barrier-free” is better than “accommodation” because the latter glosses over our exclusionary design of the world. In the end, all we need to do is respect others’ autonomy, recognize that they are experts in their own lived experience, and just ask how we can support. We do that with almost everything else (at least I try to!)

    • Sequoia says...

      Thanks Carla. As someone who is always striving for appropriate language I loved these examples. Does anyone know where I can find more? I’ll ask professor google of course but if there our some especially good resources out there I’d love to have them!!!

    • Carla says...

      To Sequoia- I’ve been looking for a resource on able-sim and disability language to use at work even but can’t find anything even though Ontario (where I live) has quite extensive legislation around disability and access. That’s always been such a shortcoming. However, I do know that using people-first language is a strong part of the community’s advocacy work. E.g. avoid ‘disabled person’ (it reduces a person to their disability) and use ‘person with a physical disability/mental health disability/etc’. Maybe this is a good place to start: https://www.alberta.ca/assets/documents/ed-video-discussion-guide-2-talk-about-disabilities.pdf

    • Ellen says...

      this is actually quite contested and depends on the person. Even the author said she is a “disabled person” … “person-first language” has generally been preferred by parents of disabled people but not so much by the actual people with disabilities. It is a complicated issue, but personally I prefer to have my identity acknowledged. I am a disabled person just like I am a queer person, a white person or a woman (not a person with gayness! haha)

  84. jm says...

    Great post. Yes, please, more disability representation on Cup of Jo and everywhere.

    • Shannon says...

      I would also love to see more! This was a great read :)

  85. SR says...

    I suggest everyone check out Alice Wong’s new book Disability Visibility!! It’s a great read!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      thank you, SR!

  86. Jen says...

    Thank you so much for writing this and to CoJ for posting. I have been studying Therapeutic Recreation and much of the program revolves around inclusivity for people with disabilities, not just in terms of accessibility but also reshaping people’s attitudes and beliefs. It has been truly eye opening, but it’s even more helpful to hear the personal experiences and suggestions of those who face challenges every day, mostly due to the ignorance of non-disabled people, so that we can all be better advocates.

  87. Reanna says...

    “How can I help you do what you’re already doing?” So obvious, and yet so brilliant! Loved this entire post. Thank you!

    • Kate the Great says...

      I love this as well. I’ve been legally blind and hearing-impaired my whole life, but I rarely think of myself as Disabled. I also think Differently-Abled is awkward in our language. I’m certainly not Special either, because that implies mental disability in a derogatory way.

      I’m a writer as well, and much of my exploration has to do with language. How do I explain my disability when science is constantly changing? I just finished a month’s worth of eye doctor’s appointments only to find that I don’t have Usher’s Syndrome and RP as I have been diagnosed all my life. But my disability hasn’t changed or been repaired in any way.

      It does floor me, but not as much as I thought it would. Probably because my identity is so much more than my impairment. I have a religion, I am a theatre person, I love the color orange, I am the eldest of six kids, I am the mom of three, I have long hair…

  88. Amanda says...

    I’m really loving…and learning from…the diversity of voices on Cup of Jo. Thank you for making it a priority to share content from a variety of voices.

    • Kara says...

      Seconding this comment!

    • BD says...

      Second this also!

  89. Lise says...

    Just – thank you.

  90. Powerful and illuminating words, thank you for sharing!