You don't look disabled

So you’re talking to your mate when it comes up that they have a disability. Just as you’re about to question them, "You? Really?’" you think better of it. Smart move. You thought disabilities were obvious, or meant someone used a wheelchair. That’s how it plays out on TV, right?

When the person you’re talking to doesn’t look the way you assume they should when you learn they have a disability, you might feel confused. Hey, we’ve been taught disabilities are obvious and visible for our whole lives, so give yourself a break, and then begin to unlearn it. 

Societal ideas about how disability should look or what it includes totally fail to encompass the multitude of ways disability is experienced. A person’s disability might be physical, sensory, a mental health condition or a combination of these, and there are so many other kinds of disability too. In fact, one in six Australians have a disability.

So if you ever find yourself surprised when someone discloses a disability, a helpful response could be, “thank you for sharing that with me”. 

Invisible disabilities don’t count

Many disabilities are invisible, but are equally valid. At Swinburne, the most common disabilities experienced are mental illnesses. Eating disorders, depressive disorders, anxiety and mood disorders can all be crippling but go largely unnoticed by most people. Learning disabilities and chronic illnesses are also among disabilities that might not be immediately obvious in someone. 

Some of your friends in class might have a hidden disability, you never know! It’s more common than you might think.

“People with a disability really don’t choose to have these issues,”’ said Jessi, a Swinburne student living with a disability. “Whether you have met them before they became unwell, or it’s a first time, still treat them like a person. You know as much about them as you do about anyone else.”

Tabitha, a 19-year-old woman studying at Swinburne, recounts her experience living with an invisible disability: “When you look at me, I look fine, I look like your run of the mill, super average teenage girl, but on the inside, I don’t remember the last time my head wasn’t hurting.”

It’s best to never make assumptions about a person’s disability status, or offer your opinion as to whether a person qualifies as "disabled". This is not cool on many levels, and can be damaging to a person’s sense of identity and wellbeing. By telling someone you don’t consider them disabled, you might think you’re being kind. But society has taught us that having a disability is a negative thing and this is not the case. A person’s disability may form an important part of their self-identity. 

It’s pretty common sense, but if you treat people and their experiences with respect, you’ll be set.

People with disabilities need our sympathy

You might have grown up thinking you need to be extra nice to people with disabilities because they need our sympathy. You might feel you need to tiptoe around them or treat them differently because their disability is the result of being dealt an unfair hand in life. But people with disabilities don’t need your sympathy; they’re just as resilient as you are.

What’s needed here is empathy, rather than sympathy. The difference? Sympathy means feeling sorry for someone else’s situation – it’s saying things like "you poor thing" or "I'm sorry for your loss". Empathy is all about trying to understand someone’s feelings or emotions; putting yourself in their shoes even if your circumstances are completely different or their shoes are way too big. 

Hot tip – this one should apply to everyone you meet, regardless of whether they have a disability.

The important thing to remember is that people with disabilities are not victims. While some disabilities may mean things need to be done differently, there’s no right or wrong way to go through life.

Everyone has some kind of disability

When someone first lets you know about their disability, you might tell them that everyone is disabled in some way. Often this kind of thing is said when someone talks about a mental health condition. You might have heard somebody say, "we’re all a little crazy", or "I get anxious too" or even "I get it, I’m so OCD with tidying". It’s kind of like telling your friend about that toxic break-up you just went through, only for them to say "I had a really bad breakup too, so don’t worry". Trying to relate in this way won’t make the person feel better – they may actually end up feeling misunderstood or disregarded. 

It’s sympathy vs empathy again. You might think you’re being kind, but this type of comment invalidates a person’s disability and lived experience. Yes, we all feel anxious from time to time – but for someone with a chronic anxiety disorder, the experience is very different.

The best thing to do when someone discloses a less visible disability is listen, see them for who they are, and accept their experience as true. Folks with a disability want to be heard just as much as you do.

People with disabilities exist to inspire us

If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen videos showing an "inspiring" person with a disability doing an everyday activity, designed to motivate you to achieve something. Because if a person with a disability can do this, then people without a disability can do anything, right? 

Nope, wrong answer. People with disabilities are not here to be inspiring or motivating. If you think being disabled is motivating, dig a little deeper into why that is. Society has conditioned us to think that living without a disability is the norm and to live with disability is an insurmountable challenge. While living in a world that doesn’t cater to diverse abilities does present unnecessary challenges to a lot of people, we need to recognise that this is an issue with society and shouldn’t be projected onto people with disabilities. If the world was more accessible, it would be easy to see the achievements, daily routine and existence of people with disabilities are just as diverse as those without them.

It is ok to be inspired by someone with a disability who does something awesome – like complete a marathon or launch their own line of ceramics. Just make sure the inspiration is in the achievement, not because they are living with a disability.

Everybody has a journey in life with obstacles and goals, so it’s important we respect that for each person.

I don’t want to offend someone

Of course you don’t! You’ve covered the basics and you’re ready to get started. You’re realising there’s a whole lot more to having a disability than you may have thought. And that’s okay. 

We’ve put together some do’s and don’ts to help you focus on the person, not the impairment:

  • Don’t ask questions about someone’s disability, unless you know they’re happy to talk about it. You wouldn’t expect to have to talk about something personal with someone you’ve just met, so why should they?
  • Don’t speak down or patronise someone with disability. Speak just how you would to anyone else. For a few things to keep in mind, check out this inclusive language guide.
  • Don’t pretend you’ve understood someone with communication difficulties. Instead, ask them politely to repeat themselves, use a pen and paper or your phone and make the effort to understand. 
  • Don’t worry too much about forgetting the correct terms or making a mistake. If you do make a mistake, correct yourself and move on. We’re all unlearning!
  • Do offer to help a person with a disability, but only in the same way you’d help anyone else. Always offer, but it’s cool if the person doesn’t need help
  • Do respect everyone’s space and boundaries.
  • Do invite people with disabilities to social events, but make the effort to ensure the event is accessible and accommodates the person’s needs. 
  • Do ask the person to tell you about themselves! You want to get to know their interests and opinions.


Support at Swinburne

AccessAbility services

Offers support to students living with a disability, medical or mental health condition, as well as those who have primary carer responsibilities. Also includes a list of extensive resources outside Swinburne. Find out more.

AccessAbility librarians

Provide students with support to access library services, resources and facilities. Find out more.

External resources

Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission

Offers a free service for dispute resolution and information around issues of equal opportunity, racial and religious vilification, and the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. Find out more.

Australian Human Rights Commission

Investigates and resolves complaints of discrimination, harassment and bullying based on a person’s sex, disability, race, age and sexuality. Find out more.

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