Many of us grew up in a time when we were taught to look away when we saw a person with a disability. Fear of the unknown and lack of knowledge has lead to uneasiness when interacting with a person with a disability. Those days are over and with education and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, our society is learning to welcome the approximate 54 million people with disabilities into mainstream as productive individuals. The following information can help you become a part of the process.
As you meet people with various disabilities, you may be apprehensive about how to behave. This page provides some basic tips for you to follow. And if you are ever unsure about what to do or say with a person who has a disability, just ask!
As in any new situation, everyone will feel more comfortable if you relax.
People who use wheelchairs may have a variety of disabilities. Some have use of their arms and some do not. When you meet someone, extend your hand to shake if that is what you normally do. A person who cannot shake hands will let you know. He/she will appreciate being treated in a normal way. If you are meeting a blind person; identify yourself. If you have met before, remind him of the context; he won't have the visual clues to jog his memory.
Do not automatically give assistance; ask first if the person wants help. Follow the person's cues, and ask if you are not sure. Be the assistant, not the director; let a blind person hold you arm and follow you. Don't be offended if someone refuses your offer of assistance. It's his or her choice to be as independent as they can be.
When communicating with a person with a disability, rely on your common sense. Ask yourself how you would like to be treated and always allow yourself to adapt to the person's individual preference. Language plays a critical role in shaping our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. The way we refer to people can affect the way they are seen by others and the way in which they feel about themselves. If the person has a speech impairment, listen carefully and patiently. Ask him/her to repeat if you don't understand. If the person doesn't understand you when you speak, try again. Don't let them think your communication with them is not worthwhile to you. If the person is deaf or hard of hearing, follow his or her lead; use gestures or write. If the person uses a wheelchair, sit and converse at their level.
Do not leave a person with a disability out of a conversation or activity because you feel uncomfortable or fear that he/she will feel uncomfortable. Include him or her as you would anyone else. He/she knows what they can do and what they want to do; let it be their decision whether or not to participate.
A disability is defined as a condition that limits a person's ability to walk, talk, see, hear, reason, or learn. Don't assume the person's disability is all he/she can talk about or is interested in. Find a topic of small talk, the way you would with anyone. Don't treat the person as a disability; treat the person as an individual.
Be sensitive about the setting. A noisy or dark environment, or people talking simultaneously might make it difficult for people with a vision, speech, or hearing disability to participate in a conversation. Be aware of clear paths of travel for people who use wheelchairs or who are blind. Describe surroundings (especially obstacles) to a person with a visual impairment. A person with chemical sensitivity may have a reaction to smoke, perfume, cleaning products, or other forms of toxins in the environment.
Do not pet guide dogs, and do not touch a person with a disability unless there is a good reason (such as shaking hands in greeting or if the person has requested assistance). However, you may gently touch a deaf person to get his attention. Never push a person's wheelchair without his or her permission. Please do not recoil if you meet a person with AIDS; shake his hand as you would anyone. You can't get AIDS by touching.
Not all disabilities are apparent. A person may have trouble following a conversation, may not respond when you call or wave, may make a request that seems strange to you, or may say or do something that seems inappropriate. The person may have a hidden disability such as low vision, a hearing or learning disability, traumatic brain injury, mental retardation, or mental illness. Don't make assumptions about the person or his/her disability. Be open-minded.
Lack of knowledge or misinformation may lead you to shy away from interacting with people with certain disabilities. Preconceptions about mental illness, AIDS, cerebral palsy, Tourettes Syndrome and other disabilities often lead to a lack of acceptance by those around the person. Remember that we are all complex human beings; a disability is just one aspect of a person. Learning more about the disability may alleviate your fears and pave the way for you to see the person for who he or she is.
*Access Resources: Judith Cohen.
Interacting with People with Disabilities
Overall attitude and approach to persons with disabilities
As you meet people with various physical disabilities, you will likely find that you are apprehensive about how you should behave towards that individual. Every person is different and some will find it easy to work with such individuals, whereas others will find it difficult adjusting to working with people with physical disabilities. People with disabilities are impaired by others' mistaken beliefs about their disabilities. It's up to society to ensure disabilities are seen as challenges not burdens. Always remember a person with a disability is a person. He or she is like anyone else, except for the special limitations of their disability.
The most important thing is to be honest! If you do not understand someone because they have difficulty with their speech, or they use some form of communication aid, please do not assume they do not understand. If you have difficulty understanding them, then admit it, and try to get someone to translate for you. People in such situations will not get upset if you are honest, and in time, you will learn to understand what they are saying to you.
How to help
- Introduce yourself and offer assistance.
- Don't be offended if your help is not needed.
- Ask how you can help and listen for instructions.
- Be courteous, but NOT condescending.
- Assist disabled persons when necessary or requested, but do not discourage their active participation.
- Allow a person DIGNITY to do what he or she wants to do for him or herself.
Things to remember
- Treat people as you would like to be treated yourself.
- People with disabilities are NOT alike and have a wide variety of skills and personalities. We are all individuals.
- Most people with disabilities are not sick, incompetent, dependent, unintelligent or contagious.
Meeting People With Specific Disabilities
- Remember, he/she is a person, NOT a disability.
- Treat adults as adults. Don't patronize or talk down to people with disabilities.
- Be patient and give your undivided attention, especially with someone who speaks slowly or with great effort.
- Speak directly to the person rather than through the companion, attendant, or interpreter who may also be present.
- Do not put people with a disability up on a pedestal or talk to them in patronizing terms as if their performing normal, everyday activities were exceptional.
- Never pretend to understand what a person is saying if you don't. Ask the person to repeat or rephrase.
- Relax. We all make mistakes. Offer an apology if you forget some courtesy. Keep a sense of humor and a willingness to communicate.
- Individuals who use wheelchairs may require different degrees of assistance. Do not push, lean on, or hold onto a person's wheelchair unless the person asks you to. The wheelchair is a part of his/her personal space. Do not automatically assist the individual without permission. It is permitted to offer assistance. However, if the offer is not accepted, respect his/her request.
- Try to put yourself at eye level if you will be speaking with someone in a wheelchair for more than a couple of minutes.
- If possible, rearrange furniture or objects to accommodate a wheelchair before the person arrives.
Cognitive Impairments Affecting Learning, Intelligence, or Brain Function
- Keep communication simple.
- Try to use short sentences and rephrase comments or questions for better clarity.
- Focus on one topic at a time.
- Allow the person time to respond, ask questions, and clarify your comments.
- Focus on the person as he/she responds to you and pay attention to body language.
If appropriate, repeat back any messages to confirm mutual understanding.
- Reinforce information with pictures or other visual images.
- Limit the use of sarcasm or subtle humor.
Psychiatric or Mental Health Impairments
- Do not assume the person is more likely to be violent than people without psychiatric disabilities; this is a myth. The wide range of behaviors associated with mental illness vary from passivity to disruptiveness.
- Just because a person has a psychiatric disability does not indicate a cognitive disability or that they are less intelligent than the general population. In fact, many people with mental illness have above-average intelligence.
- Do not assume that people with psychiatric disabilities are not capable of working in a wide variety of jobs that require a wide range of skills and abilities.
- Do not assume people with psychiatric disabilities do not know what is best for them or have poor judgment.
- If someone with a psychiatric disability gets upset, ask calmly if there is anything you can do to help and then respect their wishes.
- Do not assume that a person with a psychiatric disability is unable to cope with stress.
- When greeting a visually impaired person, identify yourself and introduce others who may be present.
- Do not leave the person without excusing yourself first.
- Offer to read written information for a person with a visual impairment when appropriate. ( example: "There is a chair three feet from you at eleven o' clock.")
- When asked to guide someone, never push or pull a person. Offer your arm and allow him/her to reach for you and then walk slightly ahead. Point out obstacles such as doors, stairs, and curbs as you approach them.
- Don't pet or distract a guide dog. The dog is responsible for its owner's safety and is always working. It is not a pet.
- Let the person take the lead in establishing the communication mode such as lip-reading, sign language, or writing notes.
- Talk directly to the person, even when a sign language interpreter is present.
- Do not shout at a hearing impaired person unless they request you to do so. Speak in a normal tone but make sure your lips are visible.
- Rephrase sentences or substitute words rather than repeating yourself over again.
- If you do not have a Text Telephone (TTY), dial 711 to reach the national telecommunications relay service which facilitates the call between you and an individual who uses a TTY.
- Expect non-verbal people to communicate.
- Be patient, pay attention, and wait for the person to complete a word or thought. Do not finish the sentence for the person.
- Tell the person to repeat what is said if you do not understand. Repeat what you heard and see if it is close to what he/ she said.
- Always be prepared for people who use assistive technology to enhance or augment speech. Don't be afraid to communicate with someone who uses an alphabet board or a computer to communicate.
- Ask the person how they indicate "yes". Once you have noted this, ask them how to indicate they "no".
- If there are instructions visible for communicating with this person, take a moment to read them.
- Make sure the person's communication system is within their reach.
- Find out how the person "points" (with their finger, eyes, fist, etc.)
- Ask one question at a time and wait for a response.
- A quiet environment may make communication easier.
The following words have strong negative connotations (Do Not Use):
The following words are more affirmative and reflect a more positive attitude (Words with Dignity):
- The handicapped
- Crippled with
- Patient (except in hospital)
- Stricken with
- Moron; retard; feebleminded
- Crazy; insane
- A person who has overcome his/her disability
- Physically disabled
- Person with a disability
- Person who has multiple sclerosis
- Person who mas muscular distrophy
- Parapalegic (person with limited/no use of all four limbs) person who has cerebral palsy
- Person who has a mental or developmental disability
- Successful, productive peson
- Person who had polio
- Person with mental retardation
- Person with a mental disability
- Person who is blind
- Person who has a speech impairment
- Person with a learning disability
- Person with mental or emotional disability
- Little person, short in stature
- Birth defect
- Afflicted/afflicted by
- Deformed/deformed by
- Defect, defective, vegetable
- Caused by "__________"
- Disabled since birth
- Born with "__________"
- Has condition of "___________"
- Born without legs
- Deaf person
- Pre-lingually (deaf at birth) deaf
- Post-lingually (deaf after birth) deaf
- Deaf/profoundly deaf (no hearing capability)
- Hearing impaired (some hearing capability)
- Confined to a wheelchair
- Restricted to a wheelchair
- Wheelchair bound
- Person in a wheelchair
- Person who uses a wheelchair
- Person who walks with crutches
Explanation: Crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs are mobility aids. These aids are tools rather than entrapments. Without the use of these mobility aids, the person is restricted from participation in their community.
- Normal (acceptable only for quoting statistics)
- Nondisabled (referring to non-disabled person as normal insinuates that disabled persons are abnormal)
*Disability Etiquette- Tips on Interacting with People with Disabilities.
United Spinal Association