I don’t often write about disability etiquette matters specifically in relation to myself because in the grand scheme of things,and in comparison to how horrifically I hear of some people being treated, I have a pretty lovely, supportive bunch of friends and family. I’m incredibly fortunate to be in that position, and I don’t mean this as an attack on anyone. However, there is just one niggling little thing I want to pick up on. It’s when I mention being dyspraxic (usually off the back of some recent advocacy work I’ve done) and people say something along the lines of: “I wouldn’t have noticed you had anything wrong with you, you’re just a bit awkward sometimes, that’s all.” I understand that by this you mean well. I know you’re trying to be upbeat, flattering, or comforting. I absolutely get that, and thank you. But unfortunately it isn’t.
When you say it, I know you’ve probably picked up on something specific that I do, or have done, in your presence but you’re too uncomfortable to be specific about it, so you’re going for a vague adjective – “awkward”, “quiet”, or “uncomfortable” – in the hope that it’ll sound more palatable. It doesn’t, though. If anything, it’s more uncomfortable than if you’d been specific. It means I burn up energy raking back through every interaction with you trying to think what incident(s) you might mean, which can be upsetting. If you’re too embarrassed to be specific (and I don’t blame you – unless you know someone incredibly well and are very self-assured yourself it’s not easy to tell them directly that you’ve noticed when they seem to struggle with a simple task, or look disoriented and ill-at-ease…) then really it’s better not to say anything at all. Think about it: Would you tell a partner you thought that they were “a bit awkward” in bed without telling them how and expect them to take it well? No, probably not (No-one has ever said this to me about bedroom antics, incidentally. Not to brag or anything but I’ve had no complaints in that department. Maybe the hormonal stew kills a lot of the awkwardness on both sides). Cough cough, I digress…
I think that also you probably reckon saying ‘slightly awkward’ rather than ‘very’ and ‘sometimes’ rather than ‘often’ makes it sound more positive – as though it’s only a small problem, not a major, repellant one. But quite a few people have told me I’m “just a bit awkward sometimes.” And all of those “sometimes’s” add up to quite a lot of the time. In the end, it basically has the same effect as one person saying “You’re a gigantic freak” would. Think of it like a dripping tap. Sure, one drip isn’t much but if it keeps dripping it becomes a flood. Plus, by saying “I wouldn’t have noticed” it kind of sounds like you’re saying you don’t really believe it. Which I know isn’t what you mean, but when there’s a vocal minority of people who don’t believe it exists (cf: Guardian Comment Is Free), it stings a bit.
And finally, well, being ‘awkward’ is the whole point, isn’t it? That’s why it’s a disability. If it didn’t manifest itself in some way it wouldn’t be one. So pointing out the obvious, however nicely, isn’t helpful or reassuring. If you really want to help someone with dyspraxia (or any condition, for that matter) rather than dissecting how noticeable it is or isn’t and making them feel self-conscious, focus on what you can actually do to help them manage it, feel better, help themselves and help you. That’ll make things less, well, awkward all round.