Impression Management

Michael Bullis, Executive Director of the IMAGE Center for people with Disabilities in Baltimore, is soliciting feedback from people with disabilities about how they put others at ease about their disability. Here’s his announcement:

I?m the Executive Director of the IMAGE Center for people with Disabilities in Baltimore Maryland. We?re collecting information from people with disabilities, like ourselves, who have techniques they use to help people become comfortable with their disabilities.

I?m hoping that you might help us by telling us your techniques and by spreading the word about this project.

It?s possible that some ice-breaker you use will be of value to someone else, or, it?s possible that what they do could be of use to you.

Just let us know. Some people raise questions about whether some technique or other is ?appropriate.? That is, something like using self deprecating humor. We understand there is controversy about some of these things but would prefer that everyone forget about that for a moment and just send along their methods of helping people become comfortable with disability.

We?ll collect everything and send it back out to the disability community. Our final goal is to develop this body of knowledge and use it with our students to help them master a series of techniques they are comfortable with when dealing with family members, friends or associates, and employers.

People can respond in one of two ways. Either send the information to me, Michael Bullis, or comment on our wall on our facebook page at The Image Center for People with Disabilities.

If you?d like to send videos, that?s fine as well.
Thanks to everyone for your help.
Michael Bullis
The IMAGE Center,
Towson Maryland

I’m not sure I have any particular technique other than this: when I get into a new situation or encounter new people, I don’t assume that my wheelchair is the most interesting thing about me or the most interesting thing in the room. I assume that I don’t have to put anyone at ease, and that I don’t have to explain or justify anything to anyone.

My expectations are almost always met.



  1. Michael Bullis

    I’ve received a couple of responses and post them below in part and then my response. In effect Steve says: it is not up to me to put people at ease with my disability, but rather it is up to other people who see me in a wheelchair to learn to deal with it. i don’t expect black people or muslim people to make me comfortable with their different appearances – that is understood (i thought) to be my job.”
    And Katja says: “I assume that I don’t have to put anyone at ease, and that I don’t have to explain or justify anything to anyone. My expectations are almost always met.”

    When I was going to College, way back in my 20’s, I walked to school one day and was outraged at how many people grabbed me, assumed I needed help crossing streets or other things, that I didn’t, kept stopping me to ask if I was OK, Etc. My blindness, on that day, seemed to be the only thing people saw and the only thing they were focused on. Need I add, it was for them, the biggest and most noticeable thing about me.

    Three or four days later, I walked the same streets, and, nobody stopped ne. In fact, people seemed to see me and say to themselves, “He knows where he’s going and he doesn’t need me to interfere.”

    It was a great lesson for me. On the first day, I was tired–going on two or three hours sleep, head down, gait uncertain, not smiling, not moving my head around indicating alertness. The second day, I was alert, confident, obviously on my way to a destination of which I was aware.

    It occurred to me that I was in charge of how those folks reacted to my blindness to a certain extent. One day I was sending out messages of uncertainty and incapacity. The next day I was sending messages of functionality and competence.

    So, although my disability isn’t the most interesting thing to most people when I enter a room, they do notice me and they do what they would do with everyone else–they take a quick snapshot, form an impression, and move on. If them impression they get is one of competence and assuredness, that’s what they think. If the impression is that I’m unsure of myself, they more often than not, attribute that to my blindness. Why? Because that’s the elephant in the room that they want to hang their impressions on.

    Another example. We recently had snowstorms here and today it was finally close to 40 DG and time for a walk. Like everyone else, I walked in the streets because, even though it’s the law to shovel sidewalks, many people don’t. Along comes this guy jogging past me and says: “Be careful.” Now, I just heard him go past another person fifty feet behind me and he didn’t say, “Be careful.” So, it’s a reasonable assumption that he thinks that, because I’m blind, his “be careful” is going to provide some needed assistance. I think it’s fair to say that he also thinks that I’m less competent because I can’t see. So, what to do. Stop him and educate him? No time for that. Tell him to mind his own business. That’d be rude. Thank him for his unnecessary advice. That would reinforce his assumption that I really benefited from his “be careful.”
    What I did was say, “Yes, you as well, it’s a mess out here, be careful.”

    What my response did was to place us on equal footing, if you will, two pedestrians meeting the challenges of slushy snow. Two pedestrians each giving one another advice. Two equals. Do I think it worked? Well, who can say, but, I can tell you that he paused for just the barest moment. I prefer to think that he broke stride because I caused him to reform his assumptions about me. Even if he didn’t pause for that reason, I’ve established equity enough times in these situations to know that it really does work.

    What we teach people to do is essentially this kind of social equity building. I see far too many people with disabilities who, although they may be competent skill wise, have taken themselves outside the social back and forth that makes people feel comfortable. So, the other person gets the job. Not because he or she is more competent, but because he or she is able to make the employer feel a kinship-comfort level that gives off those all-important subtle signals–“We’re the same person.”

    Perhaps this next example takes the matter too far, but, let’s see. I recently had to testify in court about a disability case in which the question was whether the blind father could keep his children. The other Attorney, being the sleaze that some divorce lawyers are, thought he could make some hay out of the fact that the parent was blind. Even though, mind you, the parent had been raising the child for two years without problem, the case went forward.

    I could have, I suppose, gone to the court room and made my way to the witness stand, either with help, or not. But I knew that this Judge was a human who needed to have that first second impression be a clear one. So, I went to the courtroom during lunch and walked to the witness stand and checked out the entire courtroom.
    When I was called as a witness I walked to the stand confidently and at ease. I even, at one point, nodded to the judge and said, “with our permission your honor, I’d like to demonstrate how a blind person uses a cane.” I then walked around the courtroom. So, the guy won the case and everyone lived happily ever after. Again though, I do think it’s appropriate to think through the impression we want to leave and how we’re going to do that.

    Much of what I call “impression management” is what everyone does in a job interview–rapport building, establishing similar body language messages, looking for a common history, common interests, Etc. It’s also done in using similar language codes, provided they’re appropriate. It’s the establishing of a comfort level.

    I do agree that much of the time that happens best and easiest, when I just be myself. People key off me. If my blindness is no big deal to me, it usually isn’t for them. But, there are certainly those people for whom, no matter what I do, they believe me to be helpless and hopeless. And, there are those people in the middle who sometimes need assistance from me to see that we share a common humanity– that we are more alike than we are different. And, I’m glad to help them get on my side of things because it will not only help them deal with me, but, the next time they meet somebody with a disability they will probably be more likely to make the assumption of normality than not.

    Mike Bullis

  2. Katja

    I like your response to the other pedestrians after the snow storm. I go to the gym a lot, and get the odd “great to see you here” or “wow, you’re doing great” comments from perfect strangers. It took me a while to come up with a response I was comfortable with, which is, “You, too!”

    I also understand that while it is not necessary for us to put others at ease if they’re uncomfortable in our presence, it’s courteous to do so (if we can).


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *