Disability Etiquette

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Last month one of my clients wrote me with a question regarding the proper etiquette to use when someone is in a wheelchair. Like most people, our intention is to be kind and gracious. Unfortunately, often times because of a lack of knowledge we make blunders and may insult or hurt someone’s feelings. I thought if she had this question, many of you might also have similar questions (I sure did) – hence, this month’s topic.

Most disability etiquette guidelines seem to be based on a simple dictate: “Do not assume…” They are written to address real and perceived shortcomings in how society as a whole treats people with disabilities. They are very helpful and here are the highlights for you to review and absorb.

  1. Vocabulary: When you use Words with Dignity, you encourage equality for everyone. If you’re in doubt, use people-first language. For instance:General Language Guidelines
  2. Conversation and Social Graces: Extend the same social courtesies to people with disabilities that you would to anyone else. If you shake hands with people you meet, offer your hand to everyone you meet, regardless of disability. If the person is unable to shake your hand, he or she will tell you.When talking to a person who has a physical disability or a developmental disability, speak directly to that person. Don’t speak to that person through a companion or refer to him or her in the 3rd person while in his or her presence. For people who communicate through sign language, speak to them, not to the interpreter.

    To get the attention of a person with hearing loss, tap them on the shoulder or wave. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to establish if they read lips. Not all people with hearing loss can read lips. Those who do read lips rely on facial expressions and body language for understanding. Shouting will not help!

    When greeting a person with a severe loss of vision, always identify yourself and others. For example, say, “On my right is Sue Jones.” Remember to identify persons to whom you are speaking. Speak in a normal tone of voice and indicate when the conversation is over.

    Only ask questions about the person’s disability if you know that person.

  3. Wheelchair Courtesies: Do not touch or lean on a person’s wheelchair. It is similar to learning or hanging on the person. The chair is part of the person’s personal body space.You do not have to bend down or take a chair if you are having a “brief” conversation – less than 5 minutes. If it is going to be a longer conversation, then it is courteous to be at their level so that it doesn’t hurt their neck – this is the key.
  4. Do Not Assume: …a person with a disability needs help. Ask if help is needed, but always wait until your offer is accepted. You do not want to rob them of the pride in what they are able to do….upon acceptance of help that you know without being told, what service to perform.

    …a disabled person is dissatisfied with his/her quality of life, and is thus seeking pity.

    …a person with a disability is easily offended.

  5. Relax: Don’t be embarrassed if you use common expressions such as “see you later” or “gotta run”.I have done my best to cover this topic with respect and sensitivity. If you have additional information that would be helpful or will further clarify the subject, I welcome your input.

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