If you are an individual living with a disability, it can be hard to meet new people and make friends. I’ve lived without a disability and I’ve lived with a disability and trust me, it’s harder to make friends living with the latter. Why is this?
People meet at work, through social gatherings and mutual friends. They introduce themselves, shake hands and chat a bit. If they find each other interesting, they may make plans to meet again. This is the ABC’s of starting a friendship.
But what if you are disabled and find people avoid you? When you’re at a party, you get very limited eye contact and nobody is interested in shaking your hand. If you happen to get a conversation started with someone, you find them surveying the room, hoping to find another person to talk to. If these are your circumstances, it’s going to be nearly impossible to make friends.
Having lived life on either side of the able-bodied and disabled fence, if you have a disability, I think 90% of the people you come in contact with have good intentions and are interested in getting to know you, just as they would want to get to know anybody. But they are nervous about their approach.
So if you happen to be a disability virgin, and have yet to break your ice with an individual who is disabled, allow me to give you a few pointers.
* People with disabilities realize a person who is introducing themselves may be nervous. Let the disabled person be your guide. One of the first things people do upon introduction is shake hands. If the disabled person is not extending their hand and you are unsure if they are waiting for you or if they are physically unable to shake hands, leaning down to give a kiss on the cheek is perfectly appropriate.
* Assume nothing. Everyone with a disability has different capabilities. With me, I can extend my arm but cannot grip well with my fingers, especially on my right hand, which is usually the hand you extend upon meeting someone. I, however, extend my left, and if the person falters a bit, a smile from me goes a long way in putting them at ease.
* Make an effort to be at the disabled person’s physical level. Even if you are only being introduced, leaning down as you do so goes a long way in a disabled person’s eyes. It shows you are aware enough to come off your height ladder and be in their chair for a moment. Don’t misunderstand… Height ladders and wheelchairs are nobody’s fault, but it is nice to be met in the middle by the person who has the capability to do so.
* Don’t ask how the individual became disabled. Many people are introduced to me, say hello and followed it with, “What happened to you?” I find that to be extremely rude, so I answer with, “I stubbed my toe.” People are not sure how to react to this, and I usually get a confused look as they find an excuse to move away from me as soon as possible.
People need to understand how a person became disabled is a very personal thing. While the disabled individual may be accepting and socially adjusted to their disability now, they certainly were not in the beginning. Sustaining a permanent disability is a very grave loss. Asking them how it came to be is asking them to go back to a very painful place.
* If you’re having your first conversation with a disabled person, introductions are over and the two of you have decided to get to know each other a bit. Do exactly that… Get to know the person. Don’t ask questions that you wouldn’t want someone to ask you. We earn the right to get to know each other more intimately as we put time in to develop a friendship.
* Be politically correct. An individual may say something to me regarding disabilities and not use the best choice of words. If someone corrects you and educates you on the appropriate word or phrase that should be used when referring to disabilities, simply apologize and thank them for letting you know. Any person with a disability you are having a pleasant conversation with will realize you were not trying to offend them, you simply did not know the difference. I use incorrect words all the time and I’m thankful when someone corrects me.
* If the disabled person you are speaking with is struggling to get something or do something, offer to help. They will appreciate you stepping up and not ignoring what they are trying to do. This does not mean you should hover or offer to do every little thing for a disabled person. This is another circumstance where you should let the disabled person be your guide.
Okay, I’ve given you a few pointers I hope you find useful. Meeting people you have things in common with and can form a friendship with is a rare thing for all of us. First impressions on both sides mean a lot in getting a friendship started. We should do everything we can to put our best foot forward.