Don’t know how to act around people with disabilities? Relax; a person with a disability is more like you than they are different! Individuals with disabilities are just normal, everyday people who live with various challenges.
At PRIDE Industries, where two out of three employees are people with disabilities, even new employees can feel unsure at first. Here are a few tips to help you be more comfortable and communicate more effectively. Don’t let fear and uncertainty keep you from getting to know people with disabilities. Most importantly, remember that a person with a disability is an individual first.
Use common sense
When in doubt, resort to the Golden Rule; treat others as you would want to be treated. If you don’t know what to say, or how to act, use common sense and think about how you would want to be treated and you will probably be just fine!
Use people-first language
This one is easy; always emphasize the person first in your conversations. Say “person with a disability” rather than “a disabled person.” Avoid terms that disempower people or have negative meanings like “handicapped,” “wheelchair-bound,” “crippled,” etc. 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, just ask.
Respect the person’s privacy
As you would with anyone, refrain from asking private questions which would otherwise be inappropriate.
Communicate with the person
Always speak directly to the person with a disability rather than through a companion or colleague.
Be considerate and patient, but not patronizing
Be patient if a person requires more time to communicate, to walk, or to accomplish various tasks. Don’t be patronizing. There’s no need to pretend to understand if you did not; instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond.
Ask before you help
Don’t assume that people need help simply because they have a disability. If the setting is accessible, people with disabilities can usually get around fine. People with disabilities want to be as independent as they can. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen and ask for instructions.
Be sensitive about physical contact
Wheelchairs, walkers, canes and other mobility equipment should be treated as an extension of that person’s personal space. If you are assisting someone, always ask where the best place is to touch them or their equipment, as people with disabilities usually have some degree of decreased balance and coordination.
Clearly introduce or identify yourself
Give a person with a visual disability verbal information about the things that are visually obvious to those who can see. For a person with a hearing disability, tap the individual on the shoulder or wave your hand to get their attention. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to establish if the person can read lips.
Be yourself. Don’t be embarrassed if you use common expressions such as “see you later” or “did you hear about this” that seem to relate to the person’s disability. And remember, it is OK to ask questions when you are unsure of what to do.