DON’T BE RUDE! 10 Helpful Tips for Dealing with a Person with Disabilities.
How many times have you passed by a person with a disability on the street and looked the other way? How many times have you had a chance to talk to an individual in a wheelchair while waiting in line but hesitated for fear of making the individual uncomfortable, doing the wrong the thing, or saying something inappropriate?
How many times have you passed by someone who acknowledged you by a simple smile or friendly hello? Remember how that tiny gesture brightened your day? Now think about how it would be if you were the one with a disability and people you passed on the street avoided any eye contact with you… no smiles, no nods of hello, no acknowledgement that you’re there – in a room full of people, you’d begin to feel isolated and cut off, maybe even a little less important.
Many of us avoid interacting with a disabled person because we don’t understand the do’s and don’ts of disability etiquette, we don’t want to embarrass anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings. As a result, we avoid their presence. By following some of the tips below, we believe you will feel more comfortable when interacting with an individual living with a disability.
1. Focus on the individual, not the disability.
Just like anyone else, being acknowledged and given basic human respect goes a long way. Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing, instead focus on the person and their individual personality. The disability is a circumstance, it is not all encompassing of the person.
2. Treat them as you would someone without a disability.
Using child-like vocabulary, speaking louder than normal, or slowing down your speech is insulting. Remember to talk to them as you would want to be spoken to. Don’t make assumptions of their disability, they will usually tell you to speak up, speak slower or repeat yourself if truly needed. Let them guide you.
3. Make eye contact and speak directly to them.
It is important to speak directly to the person instead of talking to their aid, interpreter, nurse or caretaker who may be standing next to them. Feel free to engage others, but focus your interaction on the individual. You’ll make them feel included and reduce the chance of making them feel talked over, or less important.
4. Shake their hand if the opportunity arises
When introduced to a disabled person, offer to shake their hand even if they appear to have limited use of their arms. Your actions will help create a better environment for communication.
5. People with disabilities may have different preferences.
Just because one person with a disability prefers something one way doesn’t mean every person with the same or different disability also prefers it that way. When in doubt, ask! It’s easier to say, “How would you like that, rather than I’m sorry for offending you.”
6. If possible, put yourself at the same level as the other person.
If someone is in a wheelchair, get down to their level to talk. By getting down to their level, you are giving them the respect of an eye to eye level conversation. You don’t appear to be superior, looking down on them. As a courtesy, it also eliminates having them straining their neck to look up at you and makes it more comfortable to converse.
7. Slow down and let them talk.
Some people with a disability may experience a slower speech pattern, struggle for a word to use or be difficult to understand. When this happens give them time to search for the right word, and avoid speeding along a conversation, putting words in their mouths or finishing their sentences. If you need them to repeat something, don’t be afraid to ask!
8. Ask if they want help.
Don’t be afraid to offer help, however make sure you ask them if they want help first. If you see someone who looks like they may need assistance, ask if there is anything you can do to assist them. They may just ask for you to stand by just in case. However, they may still want to do it by themselves. Everyone wants a sense of independence.
9. Respect their personal space.
According to most etiquette experts, personal space is a person’s arm’s length (about 18”). When you have gone within that space uninvited, you are being rude! Remember that a person’s wheelchair, cane or service animal is part of their personal space. Avoid touching, leaning or trying to move their belongings without asking first. If you would like to pet their service animal which is generally not allowed for training and protection reasons, make sure to ask them first but don’t be offended if they refuse.
10. Put yourself in their shoes
At the end of the day, put yourself in the position of someone with a disability. Some disabilities are present from birth, and others come later in life due to development, accident, or illness. However the disability developed, most people learn how to adapt and take care of themselves independently. Most are independent in everyday living, requiring little help from others. Think about how you would want to be treated or talked to and remember that acknowledging individuals with disabilities can make them feel included.
At UCP, we see firsthand how a simple “hello” and handshake from a stranger can bring a smile to someone’s face. Our hope is that by feeling a bit more comfortable with these tips, you will take the first step in acknowledging individuals with disabilities to help them feel less isolated.
UCP of Sacramento and Northern California’s goal is to help individuals with disabilities by providing tools that can help them be recognized for their contributions, not their disabilities.
Learn more about etiquette for communicating with people with disabilities on UCP’s website.