Adults with disabilities in general, and those with developmental disabilities in particular, are often treated like children, or in similar undignified terms. People can sometimes think that if someone has a disability, they are deserving of fewer rights. And that can lead to condescension towards adults without disabilities.
The stereotype of the ‘eternal child’ has been present throughout history and continues to wreak havoc in everything from employment discrimination to forced sterilisation.
There are a lot of ways people can treat people with disabilities like second class citizens or children, and most of the time it just comes from a place of ignorance, and not malice. Here are some of those ways.
1. Over-simplifying vocabulary
If you start using words as if you were speaking to an Italian tourist who speaks no English, you’re doing it wrong.
2. Think they’re cute in a ‘cute child’ kind of way
If you look at another adult and say to a friend ‘niggustahom’ or ‘Tad-Down Syndrome vera ikunu ħelwin’ (“People with Down’s Syndrome are so cute”), you are also doing it wrong. Thinking you are being nice and calling an adult cute because they have a disability isn’t very smart, or nice.
3. Addressing another adult instead of the adult with disabilities themselves
Imagine sitting at a restaurant with your friends, and the waiter comes and asks your friends for your order, leaving you sitting there looking silly, when you wanted to order for yourself. It’s kind of like that.
4. Hide information from them
People with disabilities have plans and life goals as well, and want to be involved in the planning of their own future. Making life decisions for them without discussing it with them or not educating them on what’s happening isn’t going to make them feel very included in their own life.
5. Act surprised when you find out they are in a romantic relationship
People with disabilities are sexual beings as well, and fall in love and feel rejected and get infatuated just like everyone else. When they find someone they love, try not to make a big deal out of it.
6. Force them to participate in activities they weren’t given a choice for
Would you want to sit down and play with toys for an hour when you really, really didn’t want to? No? Then don’t do the same to others.
7. Give gifts and free goodies
Everyone loves a good gift, but going up to a 35-year-old man and giving him a Kinder Bueno and a pat on the head and smiling like you’re Mother Theresa isn’t going to impress anyone, least of all the 35-year-old man.
8. Getting overexcited when someone does something
Screaming ‘Kemm int brava!’ (“Aren’t you good!”) and acting impressed when an adult with disability puts on their shoes is the definition of infantilisation.
9. Adapt a demeanour when you realise someone has a disability
If you start walking on eggshells, or alternatively, applauding every little step when you are around someone with disabilities, it’s going to come off as patronising. Just act normal and be yourself – that’s what they are doing anyway.
10. Downgrading your view of someone’s intelligence and maturity due to visible signs of disability
Acting very surprised when finding out a person with disability has a job or acting shocked that they are able to catch a bus safely just goes to show how little you thought of them and their abilities.
11. Talking over them, ignoring their wishes, and trying to control them
An adult with disabilities is still an adult, and they deserve the full respect any adult deserves. Talking over them as if their opinion is not important or as if their voice isn’t important is terrible.
And using specific questions or prompts to try to manipulate people with disabilities to say what you want them to say is also terrible.
Not only that, but stopping them from reading or seeing or saying things that you feel might be “inappropriate” is terribly patronising. You decide what you want to do in your life – how about extending the same right to your fellow human beings?
Special thanks to Lindsey Meilak, Manager of the Adults Training Department at Inspire Malta.