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  • Writer's pictureKate Walker

I Think Just Like You Do

Physical disabilities ≠ mental disabilities

Friedreich's Ataxia does NOT affect my cognitive ability.

A lot of people see someone in a wheelchair/with a physical disability and assume that they have a mental disability. Two immediate reasons people shouldn't do that:

  1. Assuming that everyone with a physical disability also has a mental disability is like assuming that a physical quality, such as hair color, coordinates with level of intelligence. It doesn't make any sense and it's rarely an accurate assumption.

  2. You wouldn't assume that an able-bodied person has a mental disability, so don't do it to someone who isn't able-bodied. Someone could be able-bodied and have a mental disability. Someone could also be physically disabled and have a mental disability. Or vice versa. Mental disabilities go both ways.

These are two of the most obvious/immediate arguments, but let's unpack this issue further.

Speaking from personal experience, when people assume that I have a mental disability, these are some of the behaviors that I experience:

  1. People talk down to me.

  2. People stare at me or talk about me.

  3. People don't ask me for my opinion.

  4. People dismiss what I say.

This really hurts my feelings. Way more than anything else. Imagine if it was you. How would you like to get talked down to, stared at, or have your opinion silenced/dismissed? Probably not very much.

I sort of get why people do it. They do it because if I did have a mental disability, they wouldn't want to make me upset by speaking to me in a way I don't understand. But people with a mental disability don't usually like getting talked down to either. No one does.

One of the things that I have mentioned a few times. but not talked about in depth, is that my hearing and speech is sometimes affected by FA. When it is loud, it is hard for me to pick out one sound. This means that sometimes you have to repeat whatever you said to me. When I am tired, my words will slur together. This means that sometimes I have to repeat a sentence to make it come out right. But it's as simple as that. It has nothing to do with my cognitive ability. I've noticed that sometimes when I have to ask someone to repeat what they said or say a sentence over, they will immediately start talking down to me, change the subject to an easier topic, find a way to leave the conversation, or try to finish sentences for me. So many people with physical disabilities experience symptoms affecting their hearing or speech, but it has nothing to do with their cognitive ability.

People assuming physical disabilities = mental disabilities is a huge issue. I wrote this post mostly tailored to FA, but this assumption is something that affects someone with ANY physical disability. It is one of the things that my disabled friends and I struggle with the most. It hurts our feelings and isolates us further. If you are a disabled person reading this, I challenge you to make your voice heard even when people keep trying to silence it. If you are able-bodied and have been guilty of assuming that someone with a physical disability has a mental disability, it's okay! This post was written to merely draw attention to the issue. Most able-bodied people don't even know they are doing it. But I challenge you to change that behavior in the future. You might be surprised by what happens.

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