We don't always know how to behave around someone with a disability. However, there's no reason to feel awkward or uncertain.
Here are the guidelines for successful interactions with people with disabilities.
Emphasize The Person
Treat the Individual with Respect.
Do treat them like a person.
Do make eye contact.
If the individual is in a wheelchair, consider sitting down to make communication easier.
Disabled and Here CC BY 4.0
1. Don't speak to them as if they are children.
Adults with disabilities are adults. They vote, sign documents, date, marry, and navigate life in much the same way as those without disabilities.
2. Don't use hero language.
Never say, “You inspire me" or "You're so brave."
Don't ask intrusive questions.
Don't ask a casual or new acquaintance what happened to them or how they became disabled unless you have a reason other than curiosity.
We Are People
In this clip from ODR Disability Sensitivity Training, these individuals speak for themselves.
Use Person-first Language
Most individuals with disabilities prefer Person-first language.
Emphasize the individual rather than the disability.
Emphasize abilities and not limitations, and avoid language suggesting the person is lacking.
For example, say "a person using a cane," "a person with an emotional disability," or "a person with Cystic Fibrosis."
Some exceptions to the person-first guideline include deaf individuals, the Deaf community, and autistic individuals.
The individual may have a different preference, and that preference should be respected and honored.
Avoid Making Assumptions
Don't assume you should shout for the person to hear you.
Don’t assume you know what the person feels or wants or what is best for them.
Don’t assume they don’t shake hands even if they have limited use of their hands or an artificial limb.
Don’t assume you have offended a person if you accidentally say:
"See you later" to an individual who is blind, or
"I have to run" to an individual using a wheelchair.
It happens. Don’t emphasize it by apologizing repeatedly.
Speak Directly To The Individual
A person with a disability may be assisted by an aide, companion, or interpreter. You should focus your attention on the person with the disability when trying to communicate with them.
Even though the person who is deaf will be looking at the sign language interpreter, you should look at the individual and not at the interpreter.
Do not talk to them or about them through their companion or aide.
Tips For Communicating And Interacting
With a Person who is Hard of Hearing
Do not shout. There are hearing-impaired individual who can read lips or who read sign language.
If an individual indicates that they are not hearing you, it may then be appropriate to speak up.
If they indicate that they read lips, try to face them and refrain from turning away or blocking your face with your hands or an object you are holding.
With a Person who is blind
Do announce yourself when you enter a room and when you leave.
Do not grab them by the arm. If they accept your offer of assistance, let them take your arm.
Do not touch their cane or service animal.
With a Person with an Intellectual Impairment
Do not raise you voice but do consider speaking more slowly.
Be prepared to repeat yourself as needed.
With a Person with a Communication Impairment
Listen and do not interrupt.
Ask them to repeat themselves as needed.
Do not pretend to understand when you do not.
Ask Before Trying To Help
You can offer assistance, but don't help without asking first.
If the individual agrees to your offer of help, ask "How can I best help?"
Let them direct you instead of grabbing for their arm, wheelchair, or other assistive device. You should never touch an assistive device without permission.
Your neighbor, Cynthia, uses a wheelchair. When is it okay to touch her wheelchair?
Clockwise from top left corner (All images were cropped and combined in collage format): Service Dog by Jami430 / CC BY-SA 4.0; Service Dog from flickr / CC BY 2.0; Samivest by Crjs452 / CC BY-SA 3.0; Service Dog by PersianDutchNetwork / CC BY-SA 3.0; Service Dog by http://www.pawsitivityservicedogs.com / CC BY-SA 4.0C
Never touch a service animal.
These animals are working even when they appear to be resting.
Do not pet them or distract them.
Service animals assist individuals who are blind and many others. Service animals may be monitoring an individual for a seizure or dizzy spell. By distracting them, you could be putting their owner in danger.
On your way to lunch, you spot a man walking the cutest dog. As you get closer, you realize the dog is wearing a service animal vest. When can you stop and pet the animal?
Image by J. Nicholson for Disability:IN CC BY 4.0-No derivatives.
The goal is simple: treat individuals with disabilities with respect. As you learned in the video, the key is to "treat us the way you would want to be treated."
Put these guidelines into practice the next time you interact with a person with a disability.
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This Byte has been authored by
Attorney and Learning Designer