As the pandemic wanes and many return to working offline and in shared phyical workspaces, we are also returning to some of the workplace issues we didn’t have to deal with when work was done from home, if we were fortunate enough to be working at all. Those with disabilities are often tasked with coping with coworkers who believe the following myths about them.
Myth: You are not disabled if the disability is not immediately visible or obvious.
Some disabled people need to use wheelchairs, walkers, canes, or other assistive devices to help them get around from day to day. Others only need them occasionally. Some do not need them at all. The type of device a person may or may not need depends on their unique set of issues, and not on their specific disability.
A person with a disability that leaves them with a weak and sore back may need to use a wheelchair if their back is in such bad shape they are unable to stand up, or if the pain when they stand is unbearable. Someone else with back issues may have enough strength to stand and walk with a slight stoop, and their pain may be controllable by medication or therapy.
Other disabilities cause issues that would not be immediately obvious to anyone but the disabled person, or perhaps those close to them. Disabilities that cause extreme fatigue, for example, may only be obvious when the person is home alone in the evening, or early in the morning. Or the person may have a disability that causes pain, rapid shifts in energy level or mood, or difficulty concentrating or remembering things that the person has taken steps to conceal from others.
Myth: Disabled people all have cognitive disabilities.
This is what we used to commonly refer to as “retarded” or “mentally retarded” before that word took on insulting and demeaning connotations for many. It refers to impairments in thinking, memory, concentration, reasoning, and other cognitive skills that impact a person’s life.
Many people believe this misconception without realizing it. They will immediately start speaking slower to someone who appears to be physically disabled, or upon learning that someone has a disability, or assume they are mentally much younger than their actual age. This is insulting and unnecessary. It is entirely possible to be both disabled and highly intelligent in the most conventional ways.
Myth: Disabled people do not work, or if they do, it’s in a made-up or specially arranged easy job. They’re all drawing disability payments from the government.
Disability funds are set aside for people whose disabilities prevent them from earning enough money to live on. If a person’s disability does not prevent them from earning enough money to live on, they do not receive disability money, even if they have a disability. A person who cannot walk, but can earn a law degree and work for a law firm is not on disability. Someone who needs a cane to walk around their office, but is able to do a full-time office assistant job, is not on disability.
Disability benefits are not simply handed out to everyone who has any type of disability. Never assume someone did not do the same work you did to achieve their professional success, or that they are supplementing their income with disability payments.
Myth: People with disabilities are all childlike, and interested in things intended for those much younger than their chronological age.
A person with cognitive and/or emotional impairments that impair their ability to advance beyond a certain age mentally may remain childlike their entire lives. But just like any other type of impairment, all disabled people do not have this issue. Someone who only has physical impairments or issues, or whose emotional impairments do not impact cognitive ability, will be interested in the same things as anyone else of their age group. Disabled adults may be interested in art, politics, religion, sports, economics and finances, business, law, languages, or any other interest adults might have. They can discuss these topics on the same level as anyone else.
This is another myth people often buy into without realizing it. They might address a person’s sign language interpreter or other personal care aide instead of talking to the individual, as one would when asking a babysitter or parent questions about a small child.
Some even try to be kind and include disabled people in activities, but encourage them to participate in the activities meant for children rather than adults. One disabled YouTuber was shocked when a man asked his girlfriend if he wanted to play with bubbles. Another disabled person was assured that she could attend an event because there would be “kids” there. She was forty years old at the time.
Myth: Disabled people are angels. They are all sweet and kind and loving.
Disabled people are human beings whose circumstances have brought them some challenges the majority of the population does not face. Their personalities, characters, and values can vary just as much as people without these same challenges. Some disabilities impact personality, and some do not.
Spend time with a large group of disabled people. You will meet people you like. You will also meet some you dislike. And some will like you. And some will dislike you. Everyone with a disability is not friendly, charming, kind, or grateful that you simply talked to them. Some are and some aren’t, just like people without disabilities.
Myth: Disabled people do not know about things like dating and marriage, and if they do, they are uninterested in it.
Disabled people have sexual orientations, gender identities, and varying levels of interest in romantic relationships, just like the rest of the population. A person can be disabled and straight, gay, bisexual, asexual, or transgender. A single disabled person might indeed be uninterested in any type of romantic relationship. Or they may dream of having a boyfriend or girlfriend and/or getting married. They may or may not have crushes. They may or may not be interested in looking attractive.
While there are certain conditions and/or levels of impairment that may render a person childlike and/or unable to consent to sexual activity, this does not mean everyone with a disability is uninterested in sex or unable to consent to sexual activity. Disabled people can be dating, engaged, or married.
Myth: Disabled people just want to be babied and given special treatment and special passes all the time.
Like a lot of stereotypes, we find one misconception and then its opposite applied to the same group of people. There are those who mistakenly believe that all disabled people are innocent and childlike, full of love for everyone, and just grateful to be included. Then there are those who think everyone with a disability is demanding, ungrateful, and only looking for people to cater to them.
We see this often when someone with a disability requests a needed assistive device in order to do their job, or requests an adaptation under the Americans with Disabilities act. The reasoning is that nobody else asks for special tools or special treatment in order to do their job, and if they can’t do the work with the equipment and conditions present, they shouldn’t have the job.
Did you ever request updated software or office equipment or a specific tool or program to make your work day go more smoothly? Was there ever a time in which you took a few more minutes during break time because your feet were sore, or maybe just leaned on the counter you normally stand behind for a bit? Did you think you deserved this? Did it help you do your job better? Then why wouldn’t someone else deserve something that would enable them to do their job well?
Everyone has varying abilities, unique traits, and their own personalities, quirks, and values. This holds true whether a person’s limitations are caused by a recognized disability or not.