Have you ever found yourself wondering what’s the best way to interact with someone living with a disability? You’re not alone.
As defined by the CDC, a disability is any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them. The ADA defines disability a bit differently by saying it is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
Regardless of definition, we know that disabilities can be different for everyone experiencing it, and respecting their individuality is essential.
That’s why a person-centered approach is recommended. Here’s how:
Use People-First or Identity-First Language
Instead of saying “disabled person” or “the disabled,” say “person with a disability” or “people with disabilities,” which puts the person’s identity first rather than making their disability the entirety of their identity.
Here are some general tips to follow when using people-first language:
- Try to avoid outdated terms like “handicapped” and “crippled” or jargon such as “physically challenged” or “differently abled,” as people with disabilities may find it offensive.
- Say “person who uses a wheelchair” instead of “wheelchair bound” to properly put the person’s identity first rather than their disability. You are also recognizing the wheelchair as a tool rather than a confinement.
- Some people may have different preferences about language, so if you are unsure, just ask.
- Avoid using disempowering words such as “victim” or “sufferer” to acknowledge further that a disability isn’t a confinement and doesn’t make up their entire identity.
Use Direct Communication
Speak to the person with a disability instead of a companion or interpreter to indicate that you see the person as someone with an identity. It is entirely appropriate to shake hands when meeting someone with a disability or touch their shoulder if they can’t shake hands. Doing this shows them you acknowledge their presence and are engaging them in the conversation.
Most importantly, let a person with a disability initiate any conversation pertaining to their disability and situation. Their disability shouldn’t be the only topic of conversation; they are likely interested in the same topics as everyone else.
Regarding assisting them, people with disabilities will ask you if they need help. You can kindly extend the offer to help but be prepared for it to be declined. Avoid insisting on helping. People with disabilities are experts on themselves and know what is right for them and know their capabilities. They should be able to set their own boundaries.
Etiquette for People with Physical Disabilities
People with physical disabilities often use assistive devices that help them with mobility, such as wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, canes or braces. These devices should be treated as private property and personal space for people with disabilities and should not be touched without permission.
- Avoid making assumptions about their capabilities.
- Try sitting down when talking to someone using a wheelchair to be at eye level with them.
Etiquette for People with Intellectual and Speech Disabilities
For people with intellectual disabilities, their reasoning, learning, problem-solving and adaptive behavior skills may be affected. This can even affect some activities of daily living, such as travel, shopping, following directions and assessing social cues. People with speech disabilities may be difficult to understand as they may have a stammer or another type of speech impairment. These disabilities uniquely change the way someone interacts and communicates with the people around them. Some things to keep in mind:
- They are adults, so treat them as such; don’t be condescending.
- For people with speech disabilities, talk to them as you would anyone else and be patient.
- Give them your undivided attention.
- Be friendly and inviting; don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with them.
- Use specific language without being too simplistic.
- Communication is key. Pretending to understand and not asking questions undermines communication as a goal. Be patient and ask questions if you feel confused by what they’re saying.
Etiquette for People with Sensory Disabilities (Visual and Hearing)
People with sensory disabilities operate through different types of communication, whether it be through writing, sign language or audio cues. It is always important to ask people with sensory disabilities how they prefer to communicate so they feel comfortable and safe.
- For someone who is blind, identify yourself when approaching them, and with any new person joining the conversation, introduce him or her.
- For someone who is blind, point out all posted information so they are kept in the loop.
- Talk and face directly to someone who is blind or deaf to assure them that they have your attention.
- For someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, try your best to speak slowly to make lip-reading easier.
- If someone has a service animal, please respect their boundaries by not petting them without asking. These animals are on the job, so petting them can cause a distraction and compromise the owner’s safety.
Keep in mind that people with disabilities – just like people without disabilities – have unique needs, wants, hopes, and dreams. Treating them like an individual above all else is the key to a respectful and inclusive relationship.
For more information on how to practice person-centered care with someone who lives with a disability, download the SYNERGY HomeCare Disability Care Guide.