“I heard he has ‘mental problems’.”
“Why does she need a Handicapped Parking space? She’s walking just fine to me!”
Nobody likes to be talked down to or treated like they are invisible. But it happens every day to people who live with disabilities or use wheelchairs to get around.
Many who interact with people with disabilities for the first time are unaware that their language and actions may be offensive and inappropriate. And it’s usually not due to a lack of sensitivity, but more of a lack of understanding.
Today in our country, there are more than 56 million Americans living with disabilities. Here are a few basic tips and pointers on how to effectively interact with a person with a disability:
Ask Before You Help
Just because someone has a disability, don’t assume she needs help. Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it. A person with a disability will oftentimes communicate when she needs help. And if she does want help, ask how before you act.
Be Sensitive About Physical Contact
Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing the person, even if your intention is to assist, could knock the individual off balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his/her wheelchair, scooter or cane. People with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space.
Think Before You Speak
Always speak directly to the person with a disability, not to his companion, aide or sign language interpreter. Making small talk with a person who has a disability is great; just talk to him as you would with anyone else. Respect his privacy. If you ask about his disability, he may feel like you are treating him as a disability, not as a human being. However, many people with disabilities are comfortable with questions about their disability after getting to know someone.
Don’t Make Assumptions
People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don’t make decisions for them about participating in any activity.
Put The Person First
Say “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.” Say “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” For specific disabilities, saying “person with Tourette syndrome” or “person who has cerebral palsy” is usually a safe bet. Still, individuals do have their own preferences. If you are not sure what words to use, ask.
Avoid Outdated Terms
Terms such as “handicapped”, “crippled”, or “retarded.” Be aware that many people with disabilities dislike jargon, euphemistic terms such as “physically challenged” and “differently abled.” Say “person who uses a wheelchair” rather than “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound.” The wheelchair is what enables the person to get around and participate in society; it’s liberating, not confining.
With any disability, avoid negative, disempowering words, such as “victim” or “sufferer.” Say “person with AIDS” instead of “AIDS victim” or “person who suffers from AIDS.”
It’s okay to use idiomatic expressions when talking to people with disabilities. For example, saying, “See you later,” to a person who is blind is completely acceptable; they use these expressions themselves all the time.
Many people who are Deaf communicate with sign language and consider themselves to be members of a cultural and linguistic minority group. They refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital “D,” and may be offended by the term “hearing impaired.” In general it is safest to refer to people who have hearing loss but who communicate in spoken language as “hard of hearing” and to people with profound hearing losses as Deaf or deaf.
Disability etiquette is easy and simply put, common sense. In 1998, United Spinal Association published the booklet “Disability Etiquette,” which has been distributed nationwide to thousands of businesses, schools and organizations.
Download or request a print copy of “Disability Etiquette” or any of United Spinal Association’s other informative publications here or call (800) 444-0120.
VP of Corporate Relations
United Spinal Association