What to Do When Someone Discloses their Disability
Disclosing your disability to a new person comes with significant risks; rejection, ridicule or loss of respect. When someone opens up to you about their disability/disabilities they are showing you that they trust you as a confidant. Often people feel anxious when sharing this information with anyone, they may have had poor previous experiences too, which will cause even more trepidation. Someone overcoming their fears and telling you about their disability shows that not only do they trust you, but they feel you are a significant enough part of their life that you should know.
Below are some things for you to think about when it comes to receiving disclosure from someone to make sure you make the experience as comfortable as possible for them:
Do they use person or identity first language? Some people have very strong opinions about which way they would like people to refer to their disabilities. Beyond using respectful words and avoiding slurs, it is important to know how to talk to this person about their disabilities in the future. There’s no way to know what they feel most comfortable with without getting their input, so don’t be afraid to ask them.
If they prefer person-first language they are a person with a disability. Use phrases like: “you have [their disability as a noun]”, “they use a wheelchair” or “their challenges with organisation can be explained by them having dyspraxia”.
If they prefer identity-first language they are a disabled person. Use phrases like: “you are [their disability as an adjective]”, “they are a wheelchair user” or “their challenges with organisation can be explained by them being dyspraxic”.
In this blog I use both person-first and identity-first language interchangeably. If you want to learn more about language and disability, visit this page here. (Link to article on language here)
Do not break their trust by mentioning their disability without former, specific permission. If someone with a disability decides to tell you about it, that is their decision. It must always be up to the disabled person to decide whether to disclose, and all details of how, when and to who they open up to.
Again, do not be afraid of asking them questions – no one expects or necessarily wants the person they disclose to have expert prior knowledge. It’s good to be learning, especially by talking directly to your disabled company. Ask them about their experience – is there anything they would like help with? How best can you support in getting what they need? Be discrete about implementing their suggestions and getting their supports, quiet help is much more appropriate than loud fussing.
If you can make it personal, and feel comfortable doing so, do. For example, you may have a friend, family member or loved one with the same or a similar disability, if that’s the case you may anonymously mention them, or draw upon your prior knowledge when suggesting solutions.
The best way to find out what supports a person might need is to have an open discussion with them about their barriers and ways they cope or overcome them. If your company is hard of hearing they may need to lip read, it which case getting people close to the person to wear masks with clear windows around the mouth may be helpful. If this is the case the person may need to disclose their deafness more widely and may want for you to help with this either by being present when they do, practicing phrasing with you beforehand or even checking in afterwards. If you are classmates or colleagues they may request you are with them when they first tell their lecturers/managers.
Tell them that you appreciate them, and the role they play in your life. Let them know this will not adversely affect your relationship with them.