As a child, Imani Barbarin, who has cerebral palsy, was at a pool when a stranger grabbed her crutch and tossed it in to “help her swim.” She had to jump in the pool to retrieve it, and it rusted for months after.
“I always kind of reflect on the way that I am treated on a daily basis. It is weird,” Barbarin, 29, of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “I thought maybe this is something someone else has experienced.”
Immediately Twitter users began chiming in with their experiences of how able-bodied people treated them. The stories included everything from misguided assistance to wildly inappropriate and harmful behavior.
One woman recalled how a government employee spoke to her in a baby voice and asked if she was “spoon-fed.”
“It is an extremely common occurrence to be treated like a child or to be treated in a way like they only know one type of disability,” Barbarin, a communications professional and disability rights activist, explained. “When my mom tells people I have cerebral palsy, people just start shouting at me. I don’t have a problem hearing.”
While these anecdotes show how able-bodied people misunderstand disabilities, sometimes ignorance leads to scary situations. One woman said she was in the accessible bathroom stall and a woman climbed under the door to help her.
“Some of these behaviors are generally dangerous,” Barbarin said. “That has happened to me before. I am trying to close the bathroom stall and a woman is trying to keep it open, saying, ‘Are you sure you don’t need help?’”
It is alarming to force help on a person who doesn't need it. Trying to help a person walk without asking can knock them off balance and cause them to fall, for example.
“Disabled people don’t leave the house unless they know how to navigate the world,” Barbarin said.
But, Barbarin said, there are ways able-bodied people can and should help people with disabilities, such as including them in decisions about policy regarding people with disabilities.
“A lot of people think for us, rather than incorporating our voices in policy or infrastructure. People are trying to prescribe what they think we should do,” she said. “Believe disabled people and hear what we have to say.”
She also encourages able-bodied people to seek out other disabled people and listen to them.
“People need to follow as many diverse disabled voices as possible,” she said.
So what’s an able-bodied person to do if they see a disabled person and they want to be helpful?
“Just ask first and respect what ‘no’ means,” she said. “Even with disabled people, ‘no’ means ‘no.’ That can save you a lot of embarrassment and heartache.”