Does one feature define you?

It’s January, the beginning of a fresh new year when we try on new habits. What a good time for new friends and genuine conversation. My new year started with a new book, Ugly, My Memoir by Australian author Robert Hoge, the story of a life and personal journey to define himself. While it is still too early in the book for me to write a review I would like to share some thoughts from the author that got me interested in his story.

Below I quote from an article Hoge wrote for The Guardian, Five things you can say to someone with a disability.

Here are Hoge’s suggestions.

1: “Hello, hi, g’day, how are you?”
Hello and its equivalents are perfectly reasonable ways to begin a conversation. Try them out on a person with a disability sometime. We won’t bite. Don’t say all four at once, though. That’s just weird.

2: “Can you tell me about your circumstances/disability?”
“As long as you accept “no” or silence as a reasonable response, it should be okay to ask. It’s entirely up to the person with a disability to decide if they’d like to engage on the issue or not. People with a disability are well-tuned to spot what might be a genuine but clumsily worded question, as opposed to something that’s meant to be insulting. But let’s stop assuming people are going to somehow get a good sense of the issues we face if we don’t communicate them.”

3: “Would you like a hand with that?”
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all gave each other a bit more of a hand – disabled or not – every now and then? I don’t mind if you ask.

4: “I think you’re very inspiring”
This is a tough one, and is the subject of plenty of well-founded criticism. It can suggest a misunderstanding of disability and the impact it has on us.

People with a disability don’t feel inspirational just because we’re getting on with our lives. It’s not our job to make you feel a warm glow for telling us so. But we all need as much inspiration in our lives as we can get – and inspiration is a very personal thing. How and where an individual experiences it, is up to them.

If you’re going to say this to someone with a disability, though, make us earn it. Do it after you have an understanding of the issues we face; after you’ve had a meaningful conversation with us.

5: “Tell me about yourself”
This is about getting to know someone as a person and letting them choose the parts of their lives that define them. People with a disability are writers, painters, runners, parents, accountants, introverts. Some of us have no legs or can’t see or can’t hear. All of those things get poured into the great big blenders of our lives.

Exactly what flavour of person we are at the end of it all is best discovered by long, funny and honest conversations – over coffee, wine, hot chocolate or mineral water. Whatever beverage you choose, start by talking.

If we want to bash through barriers confronting people with a disability, we need the community to have a better understanding of us. This probably means some uncomfortable conversations – for others and for us. Focusing on what people shouldn’t say isn’t the way to build good relationships. If we can face living our lives in these bodies, we can face some difficult exchanges along the way.” Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Guardian

To me, what Hoge suggests about how we talk to each other is worth repeating in the beginning of 2016 when we as a species seem to be challenged to find the right words to start conversations with people we really need to get to know better. Hoge speaks directly to the obstacle of being physically different, but what he says challenges us to use our words in other critical situations. So I’d like to paraphrase the title of his list here, a bit, to be more inclusive: Things that are okay to say to someone you perceive to be different. What if, in 2016, we all stepped back and listened and tried to understand?

Hoge has recently written a children’s book about defining yourself and others beyond superficial appearances and I intend to be getting back to you on this subject later. But for now I’m wondering about that first book of 2016 you are going to read. Let me know what you are reading so we can share more titles with each other for many more interesting conversations.