It’s difficult to be understanding of what you don’t…well, understand. This is why well-intentioned questions about someone’s disability should be generally encouraged.
That said, being aware of certain social nuances are incredibly important to ensure your questions don’t feel like an interrogation or thoughtless insult.
Here are some things to keep in mind whenever you’re curious about someone’s physical or learning difficulties:
Ask yourself: “Is this worth asking?”
Sometimes it’s not about how you ask the question, it’s whether you should even ask at all.
If you’re tending to a PWD during an emergency – an office fire, for example – then inquiring about their disability would help tremendously. You don’t want to accidentally do more harm than good while assisting them, after all.
But if you’re casually socializing in a group, bringing up someone’s disability at random while most likely come across as rude and inconsiderate. In other words, consider the time and place.
Consider your relationship
While complete strangers might be more than happy to talk about their disability, it’s always worth building some sort of connection before engaging in such a delicate topic.
These connections don’t necessarily take a long time to build. Sometimes a few short hours is all it takes to get comfortable with each other.
A mutual sense of comfort, once established, makes it far more likely for someone to be willing to share their circumstances with you.
Ask if it’s okay to ask
“Is it alright if I ask about…” is a very polite way of beginning conversation on someone’s disability.
Notably, it gives the PWD the power to control the flow of conversation. Always remember that this topic should only be discussed on their terms, not yours.
So don’t just jump right in with your questions. You’re less likely to have your questions answered properly if you’re too forceful.
Use neutral and “comfortable” language
Never ask if there’s something “wrong” with a PWD. Avoid using words with negative connotations unless the person has explicitly indicated otherwise.
Appropriate words differ from person to person. Some dislike having their circumstances labeled as being handicapped, for example. So it’s always good to ask once you’re already on the topic of their disability.
Ultimately, asking questions on one’s disability is all about establishing respect and understanding. Don’t feel guilty for having curiosity and concern. So long as you maintain your empathy, feel free to ask away.
Luna Rose (2022) How To Ask About Someone’s Disability [Accessed 2 October 2023] Available at: https://www.wikihow.com/Ask-About-Someone%27s-Disability
Enhance The UK (2018) Asking questions about someone’s disability [Accessed 2 October 2023] Available at: https://disabilityawareness.training/asking-questions-about-someones-disability/