Why Others Assume People with Disabilities are Dumb - The Mobility Resource

On a trip across the country for a conference, my wife and I walked down a market and found a beautiful Italian café. The waitress brought our menus, and she returned to face my wife, “What does he want to eat?”

My wife immediately turned to me.

With my thick Cerebral Palsy accent, I placed my order for eggplant parmesan, and the waitress repeated it ever so slowly to make sure she had it correct. She looked surprised when I nodded in agreement and understanding.

This isn’t the first time someone has assumed I didn’t have all my marbles, and I’ve had to find ways to communicate my worth.

Why is there a typical assumption that people with disabilities are less intelligent than others? If you can’t communicate in the normal or accepted way, one is not worthy enough to be heard.

As an inclusive leadership coach, I help others dive deep into the lens of their perceptions, breaking down invisible barriers that prevent them from living full and successful lives.

Yet, as a person with a disability, the lens of perception is a concept that I keep in the forefront of my life.

What is the lens of perception? Generally, there are three ways we approach people, events, or experiences different from what we know.

1. Avoidance/rejection

Our conditioned beliefs often lead to a natural urge to avoid things that don’t fit within the parameters of what we deem “normal.” When this avoidance tendency is strong enough, it leads to outright rejection.

2. Marginalization/patronization

When we don’t understand the value or importance of someone or something, it’s easy to dismiss it. For people with disabilities, marginalization often manifests in a sense of patronization, being addressed in a demeaning tone due to the inability to be seen for the full value of who we are.

3. Acceptance

Most often, we accept people or experiences that most resemble our own. What a treat to come to appreciate and value those qualities in someone else that are unique. Acceptance is meeting the other person where they are, and truly seeing them.

This is the foundation to build awareness of our selves and our selves in relation to others around us. From this awareness, compassion grows not only for ourselves, but for others we may or may not understand. As a leadership coach, I facilitate developing this awareness and using it to create positive action.

The ability to communicate and slowing down for understanding, even if we do not understand the language or culture of someone else, is necessary for listening and acceptance. If you can’t communicate in the “normal” way, there is a generalized assumption that person is not worth the time or effort, which leads to patronization.

For example, one of my friends uses an augmented devise to speak. At times when he was trying to speak to a medical professional, the staff would look to his caregiver to speak for him. Yet, when he changed the structure of his words and sentences, and the professional was able to slow down enough to listen to him, there was a direct communication and a shift in the way the professional valued him.

Check out this amazing Ted Talk by Chris Klein: Seeing Unique Abilities.

Each one of us has to find a way to show who we are to others who may not understand us.

How do I get people to listen who may be afraid, intimidated or want to avoid the situation?

Instead of frustration and anger, I slow them down. 

I set up an environment where I don’t meet patronization straight on. Instead, I bring them to my level so they see the intent behind my garbled words. I show up big and lively, in the fullness of all of who I am. Often, this comes with humor because my humor breaks the ice.

And in the end, they are left wowed, and that makes them stop, turn, and fall into the place that I create for them.

“Did he just say that?”

Yes, I did.

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