Not long ago, I received a compliment. It wasn’t aimed at me directly, but I was being introduced to someone, and the person making the introduction was offering me praise right after providing my name. I stood there, shaking hands, feeling embarrassed and proud in equal measure. Who doesn’t like to receive compliments? And many people are embarrassed to be praised so publicly. But the embarrassment and awkwardness seemed to overtake the pride I felt, and it took some soul-searching and question-asking to figure out why.
What made this experience different? And why am I writing about it?
As a person with an obvious physical disability, I often receive comments that are meant to be complimentary, but make me feel edgy. Often times, my disability is brought up in conversation at moments I find awkward, inappropriate, or downright demeaning. So when I receive an honest heartfelt compliment, or praise for a job well done, I almost always hear “for a blind/disabled/defective person” behind it, even when that sentiment is not there. This is why backhanded compliments are so damaging. If you encounter me – or other visibly disabled people in public – you might be tempted to say some of these things. Can I propose some alternatives? Because I think I understand what you mean… but what comes out is probably not what’s intended.
“You do so Well at X… I’d never know that you’re… Challenged.”
I’ve received variations on this comment in personal and professional settings. I’ll use jewelry creation as an example, since it’s a hobby and business that regularly surprises people. Comments such as “She’s blind, and she makes beautiful jewelry!” put my disability at the forefront, rather than the art form I’ve spent years exploring, researching, creating, and selling. No one would say “She’s tall and makes beautiful jewelry,” or “He’s shy and makes beautiful jewelry.” And yet I hear this all the time!
If you see me at a craft show, take a minute to watch me work – it’s one of the reasons I bring my kit to such events. Comments like “This is beautiful!” or “I like the colours!” are always appropriate and appreciated compliments; you’d say them to any artist. If you are curious how I organize my kit, or pick colours, I am open to questions (but please keep in mind that I can only speak for myself; other people with disabilities may not be comfortable with these questions). If you compliment my work, I’ll likely open up more about my creative process, because you respect my work on its merits.
If it’s important to you to engage in discussions about disability, please use the word “disability” (words such as “challenged,” “Special needs,” and “differently abled” are generally not favored by the disability community.)
I hope to see more conversations like this in the future:
“That’s a gorgeous bracelet! I like the colours!”
“I’ve noticed you working on something the past few minutes. You look really focused. Can I ask a couple questions about your creative process?”
“Do you have a design in mind before you create? Do you ask a lot of questions before putting things together? I love how organized your kit is!”
This conversation puts the work or accomplishment front and center, values the time of the artist (in my case), and still leaves room for the reality of disability to be acknowledged respectfully.
“I Can’t XYZ… and I can…”
Comments like “I can’t do that, and I can see/hear/walk” perpetuate the harmful idea that disability alone makes tasks challenging or impossible. While this is sometimes true, these comments – that are intended to raise people up – again place disability at the forefront and devalue the task or work or craft on its own merit. Is it OK to say “I can’t run a marathon, and I’m 22.” Yes and no. While both statements might be true today, what else contributes to that reality? Do you prefer to binge-watch Netflix to hitting the gym? Do you hate running? Do family or school responsibilities take up your time?
Let’s take another example: cooking. I’ve written before about cooking as a blind person. I’m pretty no-muss-no-fuss, but I can make my way around a kitchen.
“I can’t cook, and I can see.”
Do you look at everything when cooking? Probably not. Do you use your other senses? Most chefs do. Are you often tired after a long day at work or with the kids and prefer to order in? Did you once love cooking but hit a rut and just don’t feel like it anymore? Did you ever learn the fundamentals of measuraing and cooking?
See? It’s not as simple as X + all 5 senses = capability.
A “compliment” in this vain can respectfully be handled this way:
“You’re training for a marathon! That’s great! I need to kick my Netflix addiction before I could even think about doing that. Tell me more about your training!”
And if you want to make this comment about cooking, raising kids, going to school – everyday things that many people do without getting commented on – try something like this:
“Oh, you’re making lasagna tonight. I’m tired just thinking about cooking. Do you have any secrets to get into the kitchen?”
“It’s SO Great You Work Here!”
This is a complicated and messy topic. It’s clear that people with disabilities are an untapped resource in the work force. Many people with disabilities are ready, willing, and able to work, and still face discrimination and misunderstanding about their capabilities and access needs, and are frequently turned down for jobs. So, yes, seeing people with disabilities in the boardroom, on a job site, or behind a counter doesn’t fit what is a generally accepted narrative, and it often takes people by surprise.
But when I hear how great my employer is for hiring me, it doesn’t make me feel great; it makes me feel like my employer has done me a favour, and I just don’t belong. I busted my butt for years to gain the hard and soft skills to land where I am, and my performance speaks for itself.
But I think I understand the intent, and I hope conversations about disability and employment can go something like this.
“Thanks for that excellent and thorough information! Can I talk to your manager and commend you for your excellent service?”
“I realize I don’t see many people with disabilities in the work force, and that isn’t right. I’m really glad to see your employer hires inclusively. This is a change I hope my workplace can make. Do you personally know of any resources that can help make this happen?”
I’ve written before that “Part of communicating, and doing so effectively, is that the giver and receiver of communication both process it as intended.” The words of praise that inspired this post caused me to dig deep and realize how backhanded compliments like the ones above have hampered my ability to accept honest positive feedback for what it is. Hopefully, with this realization, I can start to move forward with grace and optimism. And I hope that these damaging comments and proposed alternatives have provided some food for thought, so that you can compliment a disabled person respectfully and effectively, even if you don’t quite no what to say.