Interacting with Individuals with Disabilities: The Do’s and Don’t’s

By EQUIP Leader Carrie McWhorter

Do Not: Address just the care assistant, friend, partner, or interpreter.

Do: Address the individual with the disability.

From personal experience, I cannot count  how many times I have been approached by others only to have them start talking to whoever is with me, about me, as if I am not present. There have been instances such as one person asked my care assistant if I could talk when I was sitting right there. This was frustrating because she automatically assumed that because I was in a wheelchair, I couldn’t communicate. Unfortunately, this was not the first time this has happened, and it will not be the last. What people fail to realize is that even if a person with a disability cannot verbally communicate, they may be able to use an alternative or augmented communication device, like an iPad, American Sign Language, writing, drawing, or typing. When the individual with a disability is not addressed, they are excluded from the conversation and can often feel left out or irritated from being ignored. Therefore, it is better to address the individual with a disability and not their care assistant, friend, partner, or interpreter.

Do Not: “Baby talk” people with disabilities.

Do: Speak to the individual as you usually would others.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people use the overenthusiastic tone just because they noticed I have a disability. They will begin speaking to me like I am a toddler, giving me pet names that are not warranted. Avoid giving people with disabilities pet names just because they have a disability.

Do Not: Assume people with disabilities need help.

Do: Ask permission before helping them or touching them.

It can be quite unnerving to a person with a disability if you just come up and start helping. For example, sometimes people start pushing on my power wheelchair which could damage the back of it. I have friends who are visually impaired, and some people will try to grab their arm to guide them. Not only can it be scary to have someone grab you or your mobility device, you also may interfere with a person’s way of adapting. Before automatically assuming, ask “do you need help?” These four words are simple, and show respect for the person with a disability. It also ensures you and the person with a disability are safe. In addition to safety, some individuals with disabilities do not like to be touched without knowing the person. From personal experience, it can be distressing and makes me nervous when people touch me without asking.

Do Not: Ask overly personal questions.  

Do: Ask the person with a disability questions you may have.

Some random questions I’ve received are, “How do you go to the bathroom?” or “Why are your legs broken?” Or “Why are your legs purple?” While these are questions that have answers, they are not questions that warrant responses on my part unless medically necessary. A way to avoid asking offensive questions while genuinely pursuing a better understanding of the person with a disability, you could start with, “I hope you do not mind me asking about your disability,” and continue with the conversation. It creates an environment of respect and safety for the person with a disability to answer your questions.

Do Not: Applaud people with disabilities for performing mundane tasks.

Do: Be genuine towards people with disabilities.  

Being approached with over the top enthusiasm and being acknowledged for performing a simple, everyday task makes the entire situation for everyone involved uncomfortable. Like others,  I have obligations, friends and a social life. Albeit, I’ve also had friends that would put on an act of being my friend for the visual accolades.  I was the shiny token friend who uses a wheelchair that earned them brownie points because they were the ones who got a pat on the back for being friends with a person with a disability. Oftentimes, those without disabilities almost seem to preen for a prize for being friends with those that have disabilities and it is evident. There are so many videos on social media these days that show abled individuals performing a good deed for someone who has a disability, and the comments section fill up with a variety of, “Good for you’s” when it’s not necessary. Human decency should be the norm and not awarded.  People with disabilities just want to be treated with dignity and respect just like everyone else.

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