Speaking About Disability

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When I was depressed I lost friends. Not because they stopped liking me, but because they didn’t know what to do or say. I made them uncomfortable and people don’t like feeling uncomfortable. But why didn’t they know what to say? They knew what depression was and they were all very aware of what triggered it. I know some of them just didn’t want to deal with it, but others disappeared slowly. These were the friends who wanted to be there for me, but didn’t know how to be. There is a growing trend in our society to judge people for the words they use. It’s hard to express your opinion or even think out loud without being labeled something- fat shamer, anti-Semitic, heartless, or just plain bitch. Where did the discussion go? How can we learn and grow and be there for each other if we’re all afraid to open our mouths lest we accidentally insult someone?

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There is an article on Ted.com entitled “How Should We Talk About Mental Health?

Stigma and discrimination are the two biggest obstacles to a productive public dialogue about mental health; indeed, the problem seems to be largely one of communication. So we asked seven mental health experts: How should we talk about mental health? How can informed and sensitive people do it right – and how can the media do it responsibly?

Is there a right way and a wrong way to talk about mental health? Beyond people who are just trying to be mean for the sake of being mean, do we really need to set up rules about how to talk about disability? The author, Thu-Huong Ha, continues on to say we SHOULD AVOID “correlations between criminality and mental illness,” but SHOULD “correlate more between mental illness and suicide.” I understand where she is coming from. Obviously we don’t want the general public thinking that mental illness = criminal behaviour, but how can taking a topic OFF the table ever be productive? Yes, sometimes people suffering from mental illness commit crimes. Let’s try and come up with a solution instead of ignoring the problem. To be fair, the article does point out some differing opinions and suggests that overall we need to be talking more, but the tone of the article seems to suggest that if you can’t be “nice” about mental health, you should just stay out of the conversation all together.

I can’t speak for everyone who has a disability, but when I was depressed I would rather have had people say the wrong thing in an attempt to understand or be supportive, than have them disappear because they were afraid they wouldn’t say the right thing. I have dealt with a few mental health issues and some physical ones and even I back away from approaching people with disabilities that I don’t understand. I don’t do this because I don’t want to talk to them, or because I’m not curious, or even because it bothers me, but because I know that the likelihood of me offending them is high and I’d rather not interact than get a lecture on how insensitive I’m being or why I don’t understand. I offend people all the time without realizing it. I’m sure on a daily basis I say something to someone that doesn’t cleanly fit into the PC rules of proper vocabulary. Why is it so different when you are discussing someone with a disability or in a minority?

When I came across an article by Elizabeth Picciuto (“My Son Has Disabilities. Just Talk to Him“) I was thrilled. Ms. Picciuto talks about how it doesn’t matter so much what people say, but that they say it. She talks about feeling lonely and having trouble making connections with other parents as they tend to avoid her.

When I’m out and about with my typically-developing children, people might smile at them, or not notice them at all. When I have my kid with disabilities with me, something different happens. A good 90 percent of people catch sight of him and immediately scan their eyes to a point just above and beyond his head, I don’t notice anything, I didn’t see anything, LA-LA-LA, there’s no kid who is different here!

How is this productive? The short answer is, it’s not. Those who have not experienced disability will ever really “get it,” but that’s not their fault. How can we expect them to even begin to understand if we make it so difficult for them to start a dialogue? In her article Ms. Picciuto tells a story about a time when someone asked the “wrong” thing. But, because he asked, they were able to have a real conversation about her sons disability. That man left the conversation with more knowledge and understanding then he came into it with. As Ms. Picciuto put it, “[b]ecause he said the wrong thing, we were able to talk about the right thing.”

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