I have a pretty normal family. It’s the standard nuclear family made up of my mom, my dad, my younger brother and myself (and our puppy, Piper). My mom and my dad are great parents, and my dog is the sweetest thing in the world. My brother, the final link of the family, is a pretty average 13-year-old boy whose main focuses in life are how his favorite football team is doing, and what he’s eating next.
The only thing that sets my brother apart from most other teenage boys is the fact that he is profoundly deaf. This means that he is fully deaf in both ears. However, he does have devices called cochlear implants that allow him to hear, and make his life as normal as possible. He is as regular of a younger brother as it gets, right down to ticking off his older sister as much as possible.
When I tell people this for the first time, their initial reaction is usually a shocked expression, with their eyes widening and their mouth forming a hard “O”. Then they compose themselves, nod sympathetically, and utter that they’re sorry.
I’m sure this is an encounter that most people with disabilities, or people who have loved ones with disabilities, have had to endure.
No one is quite sure what to say when you tell them you, or someone you know, is disabled, and I’m not sure there is a correct thing to say. But the patronizing pity that I have often received from others, while well intended, is not the right response.
Do not apologize for my brother’s deafness. His disability has not disabled him from living a normal life. It has not stopped him from throwing around the football with his friends, spending his summers at sleepaway camp or constantly fighting with his favorite sister (me).
According to the Oxford Dictionary, to feel sorry means that one feels sad or distressed through sympathy with someone else’s misfortune. I don’t want you feeling sad or distressed for my brother, or for anyone with a disability. Disabled people don’t always need a pity party; they need people who will support them and help them through things they need assistance with.
I know that being sympathetic towards those with disabilities is the reaction that feels most appropriate. However, as someone who has a loved one disability, I know that the awkward sympathy that my brother receives does not make him feel any better about himself.
If you truly feel guilty or upset about someone’s disability, ask how you can help raise awareness for it. Volunteer for an organization that focuses on awareness and curing disabilities, and make a difference.
Disabilities are life-long challenges that those afflicted deal with every day. But by not needlessly apologizing for someone’s disability, you save them the uncomfortableness of unnecessary pity and diminish alienating them from others.