How to Talk to People with Disabilities

By Jake Bjork (Proud Friend)

The answer: talk to them. 


Throughout high school and transitioning into college, I have been involved in a few organizations that work to mend the societal “gap” between people with disabilities and the rest of the world. This “gap” has never made much sense to me, though. Cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, high-functioning/low-functioning autism, deafness, blindness-- a person living with a disability (or more than one), regardless of how severe it is, is still a person. And it seems like we often forget that. 


Like many of us, I often use Snapchat to keep in touch with my friends. Every now and then, I receive a Snapchat notification from one of my friends with Down’s syndrome in Best Buddies, “the world’s largest organization dedicated to ending the social, physical and economic isolation” of people with disabilities. When people observe me snapchatting him, I often get asked something like “Wait...what do you guys talk about?” 


We talk about school. We talk about his basketball practices and his upcoming tournaments. We even talk about the girl who he has a crush on. We talk about the same things I talk about with all of my others friends. The only difference is that he has Down’s Syndrome while the vast majority of my other friends don’t.


Now, I think it’s important to note that disabilities come in all shape and sizes. In no means is it a “cookie-cutter” term. This friend of mine, for an example, is able to carry on verbal conversations and actively engage in a variety of athletic activities. However, some people are not able to do these things as well as he can. This does not mean that people with disabilities are not able to communicate and participate in sports whatsoever. That would be a “cookie-cutter” way of thinking.


For an example, I go swimming with kids with Cerebral palsy from a local children’s hospital. Last week, I swam with a younger boy who uses a wheelchair and has very minimal motor skills. He required a lot of support in the water. When communicating with him, he did not have the same verbal skills that my friend with Down’s syndrome has. For an example, when asking the boy if he wanted to wear a green or a red lifejacket, the program instructor grabbed and shook his left wrist and said “green”, and proceeded to grab and shake his right wrist for “red”. He moved his left arm a little bit, signaling for the green jacket. Throughout that hour of swimming, we laughed and had so much fun together; he didn’t need to say much, if anything, to communicate his thoughts and emotions to me.


The generalizations and stigmas centered around people with disabilities are often made with the same “cookie-cutter” mentality used to make assumptions about other marginalized groups in society. And all too often, they’re wrong. We are all unique in our own ways, but we share one thing in common: we are humans. And we all deserve to be treated as such.

Here's one way author Jake Bjork suggests you can get involved: Join the Best Buddies Program

Take Action Now: Disabilities