Infantilising Disabled People is a Thing and You’re Probably Unconsciously Doing It.

Elizabeth Wright
Jan 13, 2020 · 6 min read
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Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

Buzz buzz buzz

I glanced up as the buzzer at the front of the shop went off. An elderly woman was making her way down the aisle, between the front of shop counter and the racks of brightly coloured magazines. Clutched in her hand was her banking book.

It had been a boring day in the newsagent slash post office that I had been working in for the past couple of months. My boss, Maggie, had been teaching me the ropes of the post office end of the business. How to print out postal labels, weigh the packages, and filling in customs declarations correctly. She had also been teaching me how to do banking as part of the service the post office offered. This was an important job. And you have to keep in mind I am no banker, maths, or tech whizz.

It was a job I was frankly terrified of…

And here was this woman motoring her way towards me, with her bank book in hand, and I was the only one on post office duty that afternoon.

Plastering on my brightest smile, I greeted the woman —

“Hi there, how are you today? What can I help you with?”

She smiled warmly back at me and thrust her bank book into my face, “here you go love, I need to deposit some money into one account and withdraw some from another.”

I felt my stomach drop… why oh why did she want to deposit money. Withdrawal I could manage easily, but depositing. Reaching up to grab her bank book I was so nervous about doing the deposit that I failed to notice her eyes widen as she took in my hand. I did, however, notice her eyes drop and take in my shortened right arm.

“Are you alright love?”

My cheeks warmed as I replied, “yep!”

The woman was now leaning slightly over the counter invading my personal space. Clearly pronouncing her words, her eyes were earnest, concerned, and full of a false sympathy.


I leant back. Did she think I hadn’t heard her? I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes, “I’m fine, thank you.”

Reaching across the counter she patted my hand, “oh bless, aren’t you clever darling?”

Are you cringing yet? Or is your heart beating faster? Are your cheeks flushing because you are remembering when you have done something just like this?

What is this this I’m talking about?

It is the infantilisation of disability by others who encounter disabled people.

It is patronising, frustrating, anger-inducing, shame triggering, embarrassing, and plain soul destroying on a level able bodied people may never understand.

What exactly is infantilisation of disability?

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, 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.

Elizabeth Wright is a writer, disability activist, keynote and TEDx speaker, and Paralympic Medalist. I believe in a fair and inclusive world where we can use lived experience story to encourage discussion and acceptance of difference. You can find me here on Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin.

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Elizabeth Wright

Written by

Elizabeth is a disability activist, Paralympic Medalist and keynote speaker on disability, inclusion, and allyship.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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