Some suggestions on interacting with people with disabilities
As we seek a world in which we respect each other’s uniqueness, and support each other in living with dignity, here are some suggestions on interacting with people with disabilities to help you create a welcoming and supportive environment.
Acknowledge the person
- Too often, a person with a disability is not acknowledged out of fear that something said or done might be offensive or inappropriate. If the person is sighted, make eye contact. Say: “Hi. How are you? Nice to meet you.” Just like you would with anyone else.
Speak to the person directly in the first person
- If the person with a disability has a friend, family member, or service provider with them, speak directly to the person with a disability. Hearing “does he have his ID?” Or “Can she sit over there?” It is one of the most common micro-aggressions.
Ask before assisting
- Do not assume a person with a disability needs your help carrying out everyday tasks: carrying items, opening doors, reading forms, using the water dispenser, and finding the bathroom. People with disabilities have many alternate techniques and tools to accomplish daily living tasks. On the other hand, some assistance may be appreciated in some instances. Ask. “Is there any assistance I can offer you right now? Please let me know if I can assist you with anything.”
Respect the body
- Some people with disabilities may live with chronic pain or other conditions that make touch uncomfortable. Many people with disabilities have been “handled” throughout their lives. Ask permission before touching a person with a disability. Ask how they want to be touched. Do not push, pull, or steer people. When permission is granted, let the person know how you will touch them. For instance, for a blind person looking for a seat in a crowded conference room. “May I guide you to a chair? Is it okay if I take your hand and place it on the back of an empty chair?”
Adjust your level
- You should also seat yourself if you are talking with a person in a wheelchair. This takes you out of a “power position, " forcing them to look up at you. Don’t squat or kneel. Pull up a chair or move to an area where you can both be seated.
Individuals who have speech disabilities
- Let people with speech or language disabilities finish their sentences. Be patient. Do not try and finish sentences for the person—another common micro-devaluation.
Use people-first language
- People first language: an employee who is Deaf
- Identity-based language: a Deaf employee
- “Wheelchair user” instead of "confined to a wheelchair."
- “Living with MS” instead of "victim of MS."
- “Visually impaired due to macular degeneration" instead of “suffering with macular degeneration."
- DO ask the person how they want to be addressed or identified or how they want their disability to be termed.
- DO keep your opinions on disability to yourself. People with disabilities most likely do not want your medical diagnosis, advice on alternate techniques, or your interactions with other people with disabilities. If your opinion is desired, you will be asked for it.
- DO apologize and move on. If you think you have made a mistake or done something offensive or hurtful in an interaction with a person with a disability, apologize and move on. DON’T dwell on the mistake. Give yourself some grace. You may be new to this type of experience and are in a learning process.
- DON’T make them a spokesperson. One woman cannot speak for all women. One African American person cannot speak for all.
- DON’T ask questions you wouldn’t ask anyone else. If you wouldn’t ask a person without a disability a particular question, don’t ask it of a person with a disability.
- DON’T put a superhero cape on people with disabilities. The lived experience of people with disabilities includes commonplace occurrences: getting dressed, getting to work, paying bills, getting married, having kids, buying homes, and taking vacations. For a person with a disability, these experiences are not heroic, brave, or unique. Putting people with disabilities on a pedestal for living their lives creates a sense of otherness and separation, opposite the intended effect of inclusion and belonging.
- DON’T argue if someone with a disability corrects you or gives suggestions. Remember, one size does not fit all! Another person with the same disability may have different views.
We are all unique human beings and deserve to be treated as such.