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From Stigma to Understanding: Redefining Conversations About Disability

Feb 12, 2024
Three individuals speaking, one of them in  wheelchair. The picture also shows two words: Disability and Diversability. The word


Imagine the following situation:

Alex, a talented graphic designer, has worked at a creative agency for several months. Alex was born with a visual impairment but has consistently demonstrated exceptional skills and a keen eye for design. Despite his professional success, he finds himself regularly confronted with inappropriate questions from well-intentioned colleagues.

One day, during a team meeting, a new colleague named Sarah blurts out, "Alex, I'm curious, how do you manage to design so well with your visual impairment? It must be such a struggle!"

Feeling a bit uncomfortable, Alex politely smiles and explains that he uses adaptive technology and has developed his methods to ensure precision in his work. He subtly redirects the conversation to the project at hand.

Over time, the questions persist. Another colleague, John, approaches Alex in the office kitchen and asks, "Have you tried any new treatments or therapies for your vision? Maybe there's something that can help you see better."

Alex, feeling a bit frustrated, explains that his visual impairment is a part of who he is, and he's adapted to it. He emphasizes that his abilities as a designer are not defined by his disability.

Despite these encounters, Alex remains focused on his work, striving to be recognized for his creative talents rather than his disability.

What should managers do to foster a more inclusive and understanding workplace culture?


In our journey toward creating a more inclusive and empathetic society, it is crucial that we carefully consider the questions we pose to individuals with disabilities. Too often, our well-intentioned inquiries can inadvertently reinforce stereotypes, perpetuate misconceptions, and undermine the experiences of those with a disability.

This article aims to shed light on the need for greater awareness and sensitivity in our interactions by highlighting eight questions that should no longer find a place in our conversations. By fostering a culture of respect and understanding, we can contribute to a more inclusive environment that recognizes the unique strengths and capabilities of every individual, irrespective of their abilities.


Redefining the Disability Narrative

Navigating conversations with individuals with disabilities requires that we approach these conversations with sensitivity and respect in mind.

Sensitivity entails an acute awareness of the potential impact of our words and questions. It helps us recognize that certain inquiries can unintentionally reinforce stereotypes or make individuals feel marginalized.

Respect requires acknowledging and valuing the diverse experiences, abilities, and perspectives within the disability community.

Avoiding intrusive or offensive questions is crucial. Here are a couple of examples of questions you should not ask, despite your good intentions, because of the negative impact they may have:


1. What's wrong with you? This question is offensive because it implies something inherently wrong with the person. It also frames their disability as a negative aspect of who they are. It is hurtful and stigmatizing.


2. How did you end up like this? This question is invasive and insensitive, as it may force the individual to disclose personal and potentially painful details about their medical history or the circumstances surrounding their disability. It is crucial to respect a colleague’s privacy.


3. Can you do anything by yourself? This question assumes limitations and can be demeaning. People with disabilities often develop various skills and adaptations to lead independent lives, and such questions may undermine their capabilities.


4. What have you tried to cure your condition? This question can be offensive and potentially embarrassing for you. First, it implies that the person with the disability hasn't explored or considered all available options. In addition, it shows your lack of understanding about the nature of certain disabilities or medical conditions.


5. Do you wish you were 'normal'? This question suggests that the person's current state is undesirable or abnormal. It reinforces societal norms and implies that being different is inherently negative.


6. Can you have a 'normal' relationship? This question is presumptive and implies that individuals with a disability may face challenges in forming healthy relationships. It overlooks the diversity of relationships and implies a narrow view of what is considered "normal."


7. How do you perform daily activities? This question is intrusive and disrespectful of personal boundaries. It assumes that someone's daily activities are significantly different due to their disability. By posing such a question, there's an unintentional implication that their abilities or methods of performing routine tasks are abnormal, reinforcing a stereotype that can be both stigmatizing and unwarranted.


8. What have you overcome to get to what you are today? This question implies that individuals with a disability must overcome inherent limitations to live fulfilling lives. It reinforces the notion that having a disability is inherently negative or that people with disability are defined solely by their struggles.


Final Thoughts

It's important to approach individuals with disability with the same courtesy, respect, and consideration as anyone else. We need to avoid questions that reinforce stereotypes, further stigmatize, or lead to a negative assumption about their abilities and experiences.

Remember that each person's journey is unique, and assumptions about their abilities or challenges can be inappropriate and alienating. By prioritizing empathy and understanding, we can contribute to a more compassionate society that values the dignity and individuality of every person, irrespective of their physical or cognitive abilities.

Keep in mind that people with disability often lead successful, fulfilling lives with personal growth, achievements, and contributions to society. Focusing only on the challenges they have overcome may overlook their other accomplishments and perpetuate a narrow view of their abilities.

As a society, we must take steps to recognize the diversity of experiences and capabilities within the disability community, rather than making assumptions based on preconceived notions.


👉 👉 Mastering Cultural Differences offers a workshop for organizations interested in focusing on working more effectively with individuals with diverse abilities. Contact me if you think your team could benefit from this training.

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