13 Disability Questions We've Been Way Too Embarrassed To Ask

You can now watch the Paralympics with complete confidence.

09/09/2016 10:52 AM AEST | Updated 10/09/2016 5:27 PM AEST
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Kurt Fearnley: Legend. Not a disabled legend or a superhuman legend. Just a legend.

It can be a difficult path to navigate: making sure we use the respectful terminology when writing and talking about people with physical impairments.

So with the Paralympics upon us, we thought we'd get serious and consult an expert. Meet Kelly Vincent.

She's an MP in the South Australian Parliament with the Dignity for Disability party. Kelly's great. She's forthright and helpful, but never preachy. We'll hear from her in a minute.
She could smile for Australia at the Olympics.

First, a little about how this story came about. While writing a story previewing the Paralympics this week, we weren't sure whether or not to use the term "stumps" for an amputee. The office was divided. Some said fine. Others were adamant it's wrong.

Turns out that nope, no way should you say that. Here's what the International Paralympic Committee recommends in its official guide to reporting on persons with an impairment:


Never say stumps: This has the connotations that the person's limbs were cut off like a tree. Say "amputation" -- International Paralympic Committee

In this story we've hand picked 13 super useful bits of advice from both Kelly Vincent and the IPC. Here's one with direct regard to the Paralympics.

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Awesome disabled athletes? Nope, just awesome athletes.


Athletes are athletes: Say athlete or (where a distinction needs to be made) para-athlete or athlete with an impairment, not disabled athlete, handicapped athlete or athlete with disabilities. The incorrect terms are either generalisations or derogatory and offensive -- International Paralympic Committee

"I think most people have no idea [how to address people with impairments]," Kelly Vincent told The Huffington Post Australia. "Most people are not intentionally being impolite or rude. They just generally don't have those experiences.

"In relative terms, the disability rights movement is young. We don't have the same kind of history or awareness in the way we know it's not OK to say 'fag' for a gay person."

Hmmm, interesting point. Vincent said she's surprised how often people ask really direct questions about the personal lives of people with impairments. Stuff like whether they can have sex or have children. Which brings us to our next point.

Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters
This is Nawal Ramadan of Egypt, a powerlifter competing at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.


Manners, please: Don't ask personal questions unless you know the person well -- Kelly Vincent

On occasion, Vincent has even been asked incredibly patronising questions like whether she is "allowed" to have a beer in the pub. Just. Don't. Go. There.


Remember we're also human: Don't treat people like they're subject to a whole different set of laws -- Kelly Vincent.

The IPC has a related tip regarding speaking to people as equals.


Talk to us, not about us: When talking with a person who has an impairment, speak directly to that person rather than a companion or interpreter -- International Paralympic Commitee

Vincent is always annoyed when she sees TV reports where a person's impairment is needlessly brought into focus. For example, a TV camera will pan down and show her wheelchair halfway through a statement, even though her words are unrelated to her disability.

Ricardo Moraes / Reuters
It's all about the human.


Be mindful of context: Don't focus on the disability when it's not relevant -- Kelly Vincent

Here's another one we like from the IPC. We've always wondered this.


Extend a friendly hand: When greeting a person, if you normally shake hands, then offer the same gesture, even if the person has limited use of his/her hands or wears prosthesis. The person will let you know if a certain action is appropriate or not -- International Paralympic Committee.

And another.


Stop over-dramatising: Avoid using emotional wording like "tragic", "afflicted", "victim", or "confined to a wheelchair". Emphasise the ability and not the limitation, i.e., by saying that someone "uses a wheelchair" rather than "is confined" or "is wheelchair-bound".

Kelly Vincent is big on NOT seeing herself as a victim. Recently a friend of hers who uses a wheelchair heard a woman say "poor man" under her breath. "That had a really profound effect on him," said Vincent.

Vincent experienced a similar thing herself recently, when someone with a walking frame described their condition as "not as bad as you yet".

"I'm doing pretty OK," Vincent told The HuffPost. "I have a great life and I love my wheelchair. Without it I'd essentially be stuck in bed all day, so for me it's a very positive thing. It gives me independence and an ability to live a very rich but essentially ordinary life."

Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters
Kelly's right on target.

Awesome. Here's the IPC on a similar theme.


Ditch the pity: People do not want to be recipients of charity or pity. Remember that a person with an impairment isn't necessarily chronically sick or unhealthy -- International Paralympic Commitee

Here's an interesting thing you might not have thought about.


Don't overcompensate: Avoid portraying people with an impairment who succeed as "extraordinary" or "superhuman". For example, overstating the achievements of athletes with an impairment inadvertently suggests the original expectations were not high -- International Paralympic Commitee

Don't call Paralympians superhumans? Oops, someone forgot to tell a Brazilian dignitary at the Rio Paralympics opening ceremony that. He addressed the athletes of the world as "superhumans". And for the second straight Games, Britain's Paralympic broadcaster has gone with a Superhman theme.

Vincent doesn't mind a little protocol breach here and there. "Guidelines are guidelines but they vary depending on the person," she said.


A matter of preference: Ask the person how they would like to be described or addressed and they will respect that -- Kelly Vincent

That said, it irks her when the whole superhero thing goes too far.

"I guess the thing that's frustrating, and I say this as someone who is not sporty at all, is that describing Paralympians as superhuman perpetuates a hierarchy like we are less worthy or lazy when we're just too busy doing our thing," she said.


It's what they do: Stop saying Paralympians are awesome just for competing -- Kelly Vincent

Vincent remembers seeing a letter in the paper four years ago where a reader wrote that they admired a Paralympic swimmer just for getting into the water. As she told us:

"They spent four years training in a pool and people are like 'oooh, they got in the water?'

"I'd like people to be thinking those people are amazing athletes and are doing a great job of representing their country, fullstop. They're doing their job and doing it well and that's all there is to it.

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Bethany Firth of Great Britain is excited about winning, not being wet.

Lastly, on the subject of talking with, or about, people with impairments, you should never be afraid to put your best foot forward, so to speak. As the IPC says:


Act naturally: Don't monitor every word and action. Don't be embarrassed if you use common expressions like "see you later" (to a person with a visual impairment) or "I'd better run along" (to someone who uses a wheelchair) -- International Paralympic Commitee

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