Recently I underwent surgery for an old car accident injury. Recovery included immobility in a brace and six weeks of bedrest where various people came to visit, some voluntarily, some guiltily, no one twice. Observing the reactions of the abled to those of the disabled is always fascinating, but mostly, to be honest, it is disheartening. The average person seems to have absolutely no idea what to do.


Interacting with a friend who has a physical disability is not that difficult. It is a skill which can be mastered, easily and with minimal effort. If you are uncertain how to interact with a person who is (temporarily or permanently) infirm, here are some guildelines:


  1. Don’t minimize things – don’t, upon entering your friend’s house, tell them they look great, it’s as if nothing has happened! If you ask them how they are and they answer honestly (tired, a little uncomfortable, frustrated), don’t tell them it’s nothing, things could be worse! Or offer up a silly story about the time you stubbed your toe and couldn’t walk for an hour, so you know exactly what they are going through! Attempting to ignore the real difficulties a person is facing makes only you feel better, not them.
  2. Don’t Pollyanna it – bad things do not happen for a reason, they just happen. Do not, under any circumstances, offer up a platitude such as, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! If something hasn’t killed me yet, only god knows why, and I hope, if these are the conversations I have to endure while I’m sick in bed and disoriented on nausea-inducing medication, that next time they do.
  3. Just listen – don’t know what to say? Don’t say anything, just listen. The best way to interact with a friend undergoing a physical difficulty is to ask a question and listen to the answer. How are you feeling today? Are you able to get around much? What’s it like having four surgeries in the same spot already! I’ve noticed that the people who seem to instinctively understand how best to interact with a disabled person are children. My six year old son and his friends love to ask me questions – how did the car accident happen? Did it hurt? Can I see your scar? My son, in particular, enjoys detail – was the doctor who saw you wearing a white coat? What shoes were you wearing when the car knocked you off the crosswalk? The best way to comfort and spend time with someone who is suffering, is to ask them questions and then just stay quiet and listen. If it’s the case that the person doesn’t want to – or can’t – talk much, refrain from trying to fill the void with your own needless chatter; just smile and hold their hand. You won’t catch whatever they have.


Another way to think about how to interact with a disabled person, is to consider the parallels between ableism and racism. Judge the appropriateness of your actions by the same standards you would if you were interacting with someone of a different race. A white person, upon learning of a black friend’s bigoted colleague at work wouldn’t say, but that’s not so bad, it could be worse! Or, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! Or probably the most insensitive, I had a colleague just like that once, and I overcame it! No, you are white, nothing like that has ever happened to you, stop trying to minimize, ignore, or otherwise diminish the black experience just to make yourself feel better. Similarly, it is unlikely that you have ever experienced exactly what a disabled friend experiences every day, so don’t try to compare life events or pretend a false understanding. Besides, your friend will likely appreciate being able to discuss their own experience, and feel that they are being heard.


What shoes was I wearing when the car knocked me off the crosswalk? Great question! Sexy black heels, to be honest, that flew off my feet upon impact and landed far, far away in a strange man’s backyard. Have a seat, dear friend, because this is a story you’ll want to hear…