Share Kindness

How do you talk to someone with a disability? Try this magic word

How important can it be to hear a simple “hello”? Very — especially if eye contact with fellow humans is in short supply.

It’s an issue that’s been simmering in Richard Ellenson’s optimistic mind for almost two decades now. Ellenson’s son Thomas was born with cerebral palsy in 1997. Thomas uses a wheelchair to get around and a speech-generating device to communicate.

Courtesy of Richard and Thomas Ellenson
Richard Ellenson, CEO of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, is pictured with his son Thomas Ellenson, an 18-year-old who loves theater and has a great sense of humor.

“I go out to dinner with my son all the time and people will look at me and say, ‘Should I give him the menu?’” said Ellenson, chief executive officer of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation. “Many people — rather than saying something wrong or doing something wrong — will choose not to engage with a person with disabilities. But it has nothing to do with the person with disabilities; it has to do with their own insecurities.”

After talking at length with Thomas and others who have disabilities, Ellenson and the Cerebral Palsy Foundation launched a charmingly accessible campaign called “Just Say Hi.” In a series of short, fun videos, celebrities ranging from William H. Macy to Gayle King to Michael J. Fox to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to actor Jim True-Frost of “The Wire” offer straightforward guidance for having a conversation with someone who has disabilities: Just say hi.

“I think it’s great because it’s disarming,” said Ellenson, who has a background in advertising. “It gets all of us to a place where we’re ready to have a conversation about 1) getting to know each other better and 2) making sure people with disabilities have what they need to participate and be acknowledged.”

One big objective of the campaign is to help children and adults with cerebral palsy find and access videos, fact sheets, product tips and other useful information. But the most important aim is to make it easier for them to enjoy real friendships with all sorts of people.

“The most critical piece of advice I can give (to someone who isn’t physically disabled) is to break through the awkwardness,” Ellenson said. “If there is awkwardness, it’s on your part, not on theirs. ...

“The incredible thing is that people with cerebral palsy are very comfortable in their own skin. If we knew that, we would be comfortable around it.”

Here are some more videos from the Just Say Hi campaign:

This story is part of NBCU’s Season of Kindness. Follow the series on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. #ShareKindness

Follow TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Twitter @ltcoff and Google+ and learn about her new book, "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts," at MyOldDogBook.com.

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