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Please Don't Say Shh!

On Canada Day of 2005, I had the opportunity to help residents of a local nursing-home celebrate the occasion by providing background piano music while they feasted on cupcakes and punch. What I didn’t know until later was that a little boy and his mother were present as well.

When the child showed an interest in the dog attached to the piano leg, a friend, who worked there at the time as an Activities Co-ordinator, explained that the lady playing the piano was blind, and that the dog was actually a guide dog.

“Really?” He asked with growing interest. “Is she related to Ray Charles?”

The mother instantly felt the need to launch into damage control.

“Shh!” she admonished.

“But is she?” the young lad insisted.

“Be quiet!” his mother hissed.

When the incident was first related to me, I was not only amused, but struck by how clever the boy had been to make the connection between me and the legendary singer about whom a movie had recently been made. But later, when I thought about the incident again, I became concerned. How will he, in his cleverness, interpret his mother’s obvious discomfort? Will he be less likely to look for answers to the questions that will naturally occur to him? Or worse still, will he develop a deep-seated apprehension of people with disabilities?

Since 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, individuals with disabilities have been encouraging the rest of society to think of them as people first, and disabled second.

“If you don’t know the answer, it’s not a silly question,” it's a standard method of attempting to put people at ease in an effort to keep the dialogue open.

After using that approach myself in hundreds of presentations since that momentous year, I was pleasantly surprised not long ago when a cub leader echoed those very words to a whole new generation of inquisitive, impressionable minds. That cup leader, who had taken those words to heart over two decades ago, was now a contributing member of society who was passing his positive attitude toward people with disabilities on to a whole new crop of future employers, educators, co-workers, professionals, and neighbours.

A few years ago, while waiting for a friend who was getting a wash and cut, a girl of about ten years of age began asking how I liked the winter weather we were experiencing.

“She really wants to ask you about your disability,” her mother said finally.

I was delighted not only with the girl’s inquisitiveness, but also with the mother’s candour.

“Shoot,” I encouraged.

Before we parted company, the girl had become comfortable enough to ask whether I was able to “get by” financially.

When you were a child, your mother or father may well have shushed you, or rushed you past someone with a disability for fear of what you might say next. If you should ever find yourself in a similar situation, and realize that you’re feeling awkward or embarrassed, remind yourself that almost anything goes in this 21st century, and resist that urge to silence your children. Don’t push your own questions to the back of your mind either. Most people with disabilities will be glad to chat with you. They will be eager to do whatever they can to dispel the myths and misconceptions that continue to have a direct bearing on both the social isolation that they often experience, and the 70% unemployment rate among people with disabilities.

As our population ages, the incidence of disability will rise. It is an accepted fact that we will all experience some form of disability at some point during our lives. Help us build a future where there is a level playing field not only for those of us who currently live with disabilities, but also for you and your children.


This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.


I agree with the previous commenter. this is the type of blog posting that should be shared in as many places as posible. I generally believe the view that the only stupid question is the question not asked.

This blog should be written in places such as the billboards at Dundas square. It is really no good amoung the converted.

ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.