Infantilising a disabled person means you are treating them like a child. It may not be intentional (though perhaps in some cases it is). It happens when you see or find out that the person you are interacting with has a disability of some kind.
It is a form of ableism that is part of the social structures that we live in.
Infantilisation of disabled people can take many forms.
As in the story above [see at link], you may talk to someone as though they are a child, i.e., baby talk. This way of interacting with disabled people happens because you believe that the disabled person is either cute, younger than they are, or has lower cognitive development than yourself.
Now of course there may be some cute/younger looking disabled people out there — just like there are some cute/younger looking able bodied people out there. Cuteness and youthful looks don’t come from disability. There are also some disabilities that impact cognitive development… but that still doesn’t mean that you should be patronising and use baby talk to speak to disabled people impacted in this way.
Another form of infantilisation is when you address the able bodied person and not the disabled person them self. I cringe when I think of the amount of times this has happened to me. One instance jumps immediately to mind — an installation art piece I was doing for my fine art degree required hay, so I had asked dad to come with me to a farm equipment shop.
Dad was only there to help me get the hay into my car, but the man who served me kept on asking my dad why I needed the hay and how much would I need. My dad, being the legend that he is, told the man that he had no idea why I needed the hay or how much, if he really wanted to know he had better ask me. The man then proceeded to use baby talk with me. I got my hay, but ended up leaving the shop angry, flustered, and never wanting to go back there ever again.
And then there is infantilisation by not affording disabled people the right to express and experience adult behaviours, experiences, and habits. What do I mean by this?
Disabled people are expected to be naive and “pure.”
You might be surprised to learn that the disabled person you are interacting with swears, dates, has sex, drinks alcohol, and likes to go out clubbing. You might censor the person, expressing shock at their adult behaviours, and tell them that they should speak, behave, or act in a certain way. You might believe that all disabled people are asexual (some disabled people might be asexual, we are all on a spectrum after all, but disability and asexuality are not mutually exclusive), and then be surprised to meet a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse.
What steps can you take to ensure you are not infantilising disabled people?
The most simplest thing is to treat disabled people as you would anyone else. Look them in the eye. Shake their hand (in the case of a limb different person who doesn’t have a hand don’t panic, just skip the whole handshaking bit of introducing yourself).
Don’t ask inappropriate questions. If they have a carer or PA with them introduce yourself to them, but don’t direct all your conversation and questions to them if it is the disabled person you are wanting to talk to.
Don’t simplify your language.
Don’t assume that the man or woman with them is their carer. The person could be their boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband, partner, sibling, friend, whatever! Some disabled people have carers, some don’t, just don’t assume.
Don’t reduce the disabled person to their disability. Being disabled is just one aspect of the human lived experience, and as actualised human beings, disabled people live as full lives as able bodied people do.
When I was in my early twenties and working in the newsagent slash post office I didn’t have the confidence to stand up for myself the way that I do now.
As I put the woman’s bank transactions through on the computer I put up with her condescending, pitying look. When I handed back her bank book and she congratulated me on getting the job done I simply smiled back at her.
Inside I was screaming.
It is not helpful in any way shape or form to infantilise disabled people. It perpetuates the stigma and tropes that surround disability. If you treat disabled people this way you are telling others that it is normal and expected. Most importantly you are showing your children that this is the normal way to interact with disabled people.
As a disabled person who is treated like a child by someone nearly every day, I implore you to break this behaviour.
Let us all be the adults that we are and engage as adults in all spheres of community and life.
This will lead to a more open, inclusive, and accepting society for everyone.
Courtesy of a colleague