Did you know that almost 61 million Americans live with a disability that significantly impacts their daily life?
Children and adults with disabilities often struggle with stability and social acceptance. But these individuals should be able to find hope, worth, and independence — and to know that they’re so much more than their condition. That includes their everyday conversations and encounters with non-disabled folks.
When you’re interacting with a person who has a disability, keep these five tips in mind to ensure you’re treating him or her with respect and dignity:
1. Use “person-centered” language.
Instead of stating that a person “is disabled,” say that he or she “has a disability.” This person-centered language acknowledges that person as an individual with many traits rather than labeling them only by their disability.
2. Make eye contact and speak directly to the person.
Treat a person who has a disability with the same respect that you would show to anyone else. Look at them and speak normally. Assume that the person can hear and understand you unless and until they indicate otherwise. While some people with disabilities do struggle with hearing and/or comprehension, you shouldn’t just assume they’ll have trouble listening to you.
3. Ask if they need help before assisting them.
People with disabilities may move more awkwardly, or more slowly, than other folks do. Make sure you ask if they need help before doing anything — especially touching the person, their wheelchair, or other adaptive equipment. It all goes back to respecting that person, and in this case, they’re entitled to their personal space and to acting as independently as possible.
And as tempting as it may be, don’t pet their service dog if they have one with them. These service dogs (while adorable) are highly trained animals that help their humans with independence, mobility, remaining calm in public, and more. You can always ask the dog’s owner if you can pet their animal, as long as you respect their choice to say yes or no to your request.
4. Ask polite questions when appropriate.
It’s okay to ask questions in a respectful way, but be thoughtful about not interrupting a task or a social situation. Some people with disabilities have been injured or had an illness that caused the disability. The details could make some uncomfortable, or they might not be willing to share with you. Be prepared when asking questions, avoid expressing shock or horror at the answers, and don’t be offended if they decline your request for more information about their disability.
5. Don’t pity the person or be condescending.
Many people with disabilities say they would not change their situation if they could. For some, the state they’re in is a vast improvement from when they were first injured or ill. For others, this has been their condition for their entire life, so it’s their “normal.”
Pitying or patronizing someone makes the assumption that they feel like a victim of their circumstance, which often is not the case. When speaking about a person who has a disability, avoid saying that he or she is “a victim” of “a condition” or is “confined” to a wheelchair. Instead, go back to person-centered language.
For example, you could say “Jane has/lives with a mobility condition,” or “Jane uses a wheelchair” — instead of “Jane is a victim of mobility condition X” or “Jane is confined to a wheelchair.”
You may feel nervous interacting with a person who has a disability because you don’t want to do or say anything that will upset them. If you have that level of compassion for others, that’s a wonderful thing! Just bring that compassion into your conversations with people who have disabilities (and all people, really), and you’ll probably have an encouraging, uplifting interaction with them.
ICAN trains and places assistance dogs with individuals in Indiana who have disabilities and provides foundational life skills to inmates through their experience as trainers. To learn more, visit our website and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.