Blog Bonus: Speak No Evil: Constructive Criticism and PWDs

Hello readers, and yes–ding-ding-ding! Welcome to the bonus round!

I got the idea for this post after discovering Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible. In this show, Anthony Melchiorri, hotel guru, comes to the rescue of failing inns and hotels across the U.S. and Canada. They’re failing for good reasons, including incompetent owners, lazy and rude staff, and often, disgusting accommodations. It’s not uncommon to see Anthony walk into a room, observe something like major dust, frayed wiring, or mold, and ask,

“What the hell is this?”

After observing these horrors, Anthony usually confronts the owner and/or general manager with what he’s seeing or not seeing that needs to change. He’s usually pretty calm and professional about it, but sometimes loses his cool. And that’s fine. I’d lose it too if I’d just discovered rat poop, a peeling ceiling, or black mold in my hotel room. But I have to say, his criticism isn’t always 100% constructive. Sometimes the illustrious Mr. Melchiorri says things that make people feel condescended to, as we all do at times. And that’s what led me to this blog.

Now, if I owned a hotel or any other business and treated it and the people inside it like crap, I’d want somebody to kick me in the butt. However, there are certain things they could say, that would make me feel like they were getting too personal–in other words, bringing my cerebral palsy into it. I’d venture to say other PWDs might feel the same way. We need constructive criticism like everybody does. But too often, TAB people take our disabilities as a license to go too far. They take disability as a sign they should be harsher than the situation calls for. I’ve had this happen a number of times. Sometimes the actual criticism was deserved and sometimes not, but the packaging got in the way. So here’s what I’ve gleaned from those encounters, and from watching people with disabilities interact with the temporarily able-bodied world.

Things Not to Say When Offering Constructive Criticism to a PWD:

-“You know better than that.” Why? Because it sounds like you’re talking to a recalcitrant child. Yes, we often do “know better,” but we don’t know how to fix it because nobody showed or told us how. It’s the old catch-22 of, “You’re too disabled to function but you should do everything 100% independently because that’s how everybody else does it.”

Sometimes, the PWD actually doesn’t “know better” either, because he or she hasn’t been taught better. In other words, Gage has a cognitive disability. Because he is 16, but his mental age is estimated at 8, everybody treats him like he actually is 8. Then, when he acts like an eight-year-old, but shouldn’t, he gets blamed for it. Not cool, people. If you want people to act their age, treat them like their age first.

-“I shouldn’t have to tell you this.” This one came out of Anthony Melchiorri’s mouth to a TAB hotel owner. I’ve also heard it come out of others’ mouths. I get that you’re frustrated. I get that you may have said what you’re saying two million times. Here’s the key, though. If you didn’t say it to me, and if you didn’t make sure I was clear on what you wanted, then don’t come back and say, “I shouldn’t have to tell you.” Too many times to count, I have seen or heard temporarily able-bodied people give PWDs unclear directions, or no direction, and then get frustrated when those directions aren’t followed. This often happens with people on the autism spectrum, or those with ADD/ADHD, but none of us are totally immune.

“-What did I just tell you?” I don’t know–what did you just tell me? If you didn’t say it, don’t expect me to know. This really isn’t a good thing to say to anyone, but PWDs get it a lot. It’s another of those statements that make you sound like you’re talking to a kid.

“Your [fill in disability here] is no excuse.” I didn’t say it was, and as far as I know, I’m not acting that way, either. Now sometimes, as with everything else, you will get a person who tries to use disability as an excuse to do a poor job. This is often the person who also threatens to sue you all the time, or blows up over perceived slights. But most of the time, people with disabilities aren’t going to use their diagnoses as excuses. We’ve been defined by diagnoses our entire lives; we don’t let it happen if we can help it.

Another note on this one: TAB people often say this because they are too shortsighted or lazy to provide needed accommodations. In other words, Amy works for a corporate company, but has a visual impairment that makes it difficult to interact with certain computer programs. She’s asked for help but doesn’t get it, so she has to muddle through as best she can. When she turns in a poor presentation or report, the first thing her boss says is this. No, Mr. or Ms. Boss. What you should say is, “Wow, I should’ve listened. What do you need?” Also, be patient while the PWD in your employee is figuring out accommodations. Sometimes you’ll offer us something that doesn’t work. If we approach you and ask for something else, react professionally.

-“You are ineffective/unable to do X, Y, Z.” That might be true, but in many cases, it’s not. And, as you can probably tell, the words “ineffective” or “unable” make us feel like you’re saying, “Of course you can’t because you’re disabled.” Don’t say this, period. Also, don’t tell us we haven’t succeeded at a task, or never will, until you’ve given us a level playing field and ample chance to prove otherwise. No matter how compassionately you use this statement, it’s usually a dig.

“Rick/Tess/Marcos/Beatrice can do this. Why can’t you?” This is often meant as, “Why can’t you be as successful, effective, fast, or adept as this person?” It’s unprofessional to say to anyone, because you’re comparing two people by name and favoring one over the other. But when you say it to a PWD, it dances dangerously close to the bigotry line. Just don’t go there.

“You…” Counselors, managers, mediators, almost anyone, will tell you to beware of any statement beginning with “you.” It might be a perfectly constructive statement, but if it starts with “you,” it comes across as a big fat finger pointing in the other person’s face. Don’t do it, whether the other person has a disability or not.

What to Say Instead:

“Do you have any questions about what I just said?” And then give the person time to think. Answer their questions as thoroughly as possible.

“I’ve noticed you’re doing/not doing X. How can I help you with that?”

“What do you need from me/us/this environment?”

“I’m seeing consistent problems with X. Why do you think that is?”

“I need you to do X differently.” Then explain what “differently” means, in concrete terms. If you can’t do that, rethink what you need from the person before approaching him or her.

“Here’s an example of what needs to change…” Then use a concrete and recent example. In other words, don’t wait until the February meeting to discuss something someone on your team got wrong on January third.

“[Fill in whatever went wrong] isn’t like you. Is there something going on?” This is often a great alternative to, “I shouldn’t have to tell you” or “You know better.”

“Are the accommodations you have working for you?” Ask this regularly.

Other Tips:

Start with the positive. I spent a lot of time in writers’ workshops during university. All my professors had the same rule: before you constructively criticize, find one thing in the piece that works. They devoted several minutes to positive feedback, which made the negative stuff much easier to swallow. It also kept me, or the writer being critiqued, from feeling defensive.

-Speak face to face. Trouble often starts when 2-3 people get together and talk behind someone else’s back. I had this happen during my first teaching job. Rather than tell me they were concerned about me and having problems, several of my colleagues had powwows about me beforehand. To my face, they told me things were fine–and then chastised me for being blindsided. This happens to other PWDs, especially in the workforce, and it’s often made to sound like, “Well, you’re disabled, so of course you had no clue, but…” Ugh. If you have something to say, say it to the person’s face.

-Keep it private. No one, disability or not, likes to be criticized in public. Unless you’re going to point out general mistakes or tell each team member in turn what’s going right or wrong, keep the session private.

-Keep it short. Please, for the love of all that’s holy. This is especially true for PWDs. Remember, we’ve been told what’s wrong with us all our lives. That doesn’t mean you can’t speak up when it’s warranted, but Lord, don’t give me a ten-item list of what you want me to change.

-Don’t play the power game. In other words, don’t loom over a person in a wheelchair–or anyone else, for that matter. Look the person in the eye. Don’t turn your head away or cover your mouth. Don’t interrupt when you’ve asked the other person to speak. Especially to PWDs, this says, “I have the power, not you. Because my body and brain work ‘better,’ I call the shots.”

People with disabilities will always be more like people without them than different. The need for constructive criticism is no exception. However, too many PWDs are hearing, “You are unable/incompetent/worthless” in a way that is couched as constructive criticism or even compassion. I say it’s time we give that a facelift worthy of the Waldorf.


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