Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Disabled Speakers: Are We Living Up to Our Responsibilities?

Below is an article I wrote in 2005. The message still rings pretty true today, I think. I have been disabled by whole life, but I was still a year away from amputation, blissfully unaware what my future would bring. I hear a bit more cynicism in this post that I use today, but have left it unedited. When was the last time you looked at something from years ago? How have you changed over time, in your thoughts, and your expression of them? It can be an interesting, and educational, exercise.

It's every audience's nightmare. The scheduled speaker is disabled - perhaps by birth, or accident, or violence. Will they wow us with their abilities and inspiring stories, or will they bring out the violin and expect us to be sympathetic even when they bore us to death? 

For the record, I am a disabled speaker. Ironically, being disabled can help open doors in the speaking industry. People enjoy stories of triumph under dire circumstances and impossible odds. The general public wants to be reminded of how good their own life is, and to be thankful they have their vision, hearing, mobility, etc. Facts are facts - and it is simply Karmic justice that our disadvantages work for us in this way.

Are we living up to our responsibilities? Are professional? Do we let our disability trump our message? Do we work at our craft? Do we let ourselves become a one-trick pony? We all know speakers, disabled or not, that fall into these categories. But as a group, I believe we have a responsibility not just to our selves and our audiences, but to EACH OTHER. We must not create and perpetuate our own stereotype. 

5 Ways to Be a Great Disabled Speaker:

1. Learn to speak wellWe have no more right to sound inept than anybody else. If anything, speaking poorly will cause people to wonder just how far our handicap goes. If you have the time, join Toastmasters. If you need to be great NOW, hire a coach.

2. Have a well-rounded messageDiscuss your disability within the context of something greater than yourself. Example: Can't walk? Develop a "Creative Solutions to Everyday Challenges" keynote which allows you to use your experience as an illustration, instead of a centerpiece.

3. Give the audience more than expected. If you've filled the room based on the tragic circumstances of your situation, give the audience a message they can take further than the dinner table that night. What did you know before that helped you cope, or what lessons have you learned since?

4. Don't play the anger card. Unless you are heading up a political rally, people don't want to hear about our anger, unless you can tell them how you've dealt with it.

5. Don't play the sympathy card. It's so easy to do, without even trying. We don't want their sympathy anyway, do we? We want respect, for ourselves, and our messages.Speech Killer Alert!If you have a disability that's obvious to the audience, don't ignore it. You may be speaking on a completely different topic, and thinking there's no reason to bring it up. But if the audience can see it, it's already brought up. If they're spending their energy wondering what's "wrong" with you, then you and your message is being ignored. 

Try one of these two approaches for a quick fix: 

1. Bring it up creatively in your introduction before you ever get up to speak 
2. Toss in a deft self-deprecating remark in your opening. The audience will relax, and listen to you instead of your handicap.

Unprofessional Disabled Speakers are everywhere. Unprofessional Fully-Abled Speakers are everywhere as well - but they don't face categorization. I have yet to here anyone complain about bad redhead speakers. We have a responsibility to ourselves, and to each other, to be the best speakers in the industry. To speak from our hearts, not our hardships. To bring to our audience what we bring to our lives everyday - the transcendence from disability to distinction.

Below is a short video from W. Mitchell - who truly transcends.


  1. Interesting post, Rich. Though I am not physically disabled, I can say there are mental challenges that have "disabled" me at certain points in my life. I know its not the same, but still something that must be overcome.
    NOTE: I hired Mitchell as a keynoter at a conference I coordinated in 1993. I never forgot his message :)

  2. Hi I am disable mild Cerberal Pasly
    and looking to do some public speaking about disablities but finding it hard to get started feel like no one want to help you to achecvie this goal

  3. Hot Rocks - have you joined a Toastmasters Club?



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