How to Interact With People Who Have Physical Disabilities
It’s not uncommon to feel a bit uncertain talking to or interacting with someone who has a physical, sensory, or intellectual disability. Socializing with people with disabilities should be no different from any other socialization. However, if you’re not familiar with a given disability, you might fear either saying something offensive or doing the wrong thing by offering assistance.
Speaking to Someone with a Disability
1. Be respectful, above all else.
Someone who has a disability should be afforded the same amount of respect as anyone else. View others as people, not impairments. Focus on the person at hand and her individual personality. If you must put a “label” on the disability, it’s best to ask what terminology she prefers and stick with the terms she chooses. In general, you should follow the “golden rule”: treat others as you would like to be treated.
- Many, but not all, people with disabilities prefer “people first” language, which puts the name or person before the disability. For example, you would say “his sister, who has Down syndrome” rather than “his Down’s sister”.
- More examples of appropriate people first language include, “Robert has cerebral palsy,” “Leslie is partially sighted,” or “Sarah uses a wheelchair,” rather than saying someone “is mentally/physically challenged/handicapped” (both of which are often seen as patronizing terms) or referring to “the blind girl” or “the girl in the wheelchair.” If possible avoid these blanket terms when referring to people. While some people find the word “disabled” unpleasant, others use it to describe themselves because they feel erased by treating it like a “bad word”, and their disability is part of who they are. Take your lead from the person you are interacting with. If they refer to themselves as “disabled”, ask if they are comfortable being described that way or why they choose to describe themselves like this. It will help you gain insight into their perspective.
- It’s worth noting that labeling norms vary a great deal between people and groups. In particular, many deaf, blind, and autistic individuals have rejected people-first language and prefer “identify-first” language (for example, “Anisha is autistic”). As another example, it’s common within the deaf world to see the terms deaf or hard of hearing used to describe their disability, but the term Deaf (with an uppercase D) to refer to their culture or someone who is part of it. If in doubt, just politely ask the individual you’re talking to what they prefer.
2. Never talk down to someone with a disability.
Regardless of being their abilities, no one wants to be treated like a child or patronized. When you’re speaking to someone with a disability, don’t use child-like vocabulary, pet names, or a louder-than-average talking voice. Do not use patronizing gestures such as patting her on the back or head. These habits communicate that you don’t think the person with a disability is capable of understanding you and that you equate her to a child. Use a regular speaking voice and vocabulary, and talk to her just like you would talk to someone without a disability.
- It is appropriate to slow down your speech for someone who is hard of hearing or has a cognitive disability. Equally, it may be acceptable to talk to people who have hearing loss in a louder than average voice, so that they are able to hear you. Usually, someone will mention it to you if you are speaking too quietly. You may also ask whether you are speaking too quickly, or ask her to tell you if you need to slow down or speak more clearly if necessary.
- Don’t feel like you have to reduce your vocabulary to the most basic words. The only time you may be asked to simplify your language, is if you are talking to someone who has a severe intellectual or communication difficulty. Baffling your conversational partner is unlikely to be viewed as good mannered and neither is talking at somebody who is unable to follow what you are talking about. However, if in doubt, speak casually and ask about their language needs.
3. Don’t use labels or offensive terms, especially in a casual way.
Labels and derogatory names are not appropriate and should be avoided in conversation with someone who has a disability. Identifying someone by her disability or assigning a label that is offensive (such as crippled or handicapped) is both hurtful and disrespectful. Always be careful of the things you say, censoring your language if necessary. Avoid names like moron, retard, cripple, spastic, midget, etc, at all times. Be careful not to identify someone by her disability instead of her name or role.
- If you introduce someone with a disability, you don’t need to introduce the disability as well. You can say “this is my co-worker, Susan” without saying “this is my co-worker, Susan, who is deaf.”
- If you use a common phrase like “I gotta run!” to someone in a wheelchair, don’t apologize. These types of phrases are not intended to be hurtful, and by apologizing you’ll simply be drawing attention to your awareness of her disability.
4. Speak directly to the person, not to an aide or translator.
It’s frustrating for someone with a disability to have to deal with people never talking directly to her if she has an assistant or a translator present. Equally, talk to a person in a wheelchair, rather than the person standing next to them. Their body may not be working fully, but it doesn’t mean their brains aren’t! If you’re speaking with someone who has a nurse to help or someone who is deaf and has a sign language interpreter, you should still always speak directly to the person who is disabled.
- Even if the person doesn’t have typical listening body language (e.g. an autistic person who doesn’t look at you), don’t assume that they can’t hear you. Speak to them.
5. Be patient and ask questions, if necessary.
It can be tempting to speed along a conversation or to finish the sentences of someone with a disability, but doing so can be disrespectful. Always let her speak and work at her own pace, without you egging her to talk, think, or move faster. Additionally, if you don’t understand something someone says because they’re speaking too slowly or too quickly, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Assuming you know what someone said can be detrimental and embarrassing if you mishear her, so always double-check.
- Someone with a speech impediment might be particularly difficult to understand, so don’t rush her to talk faster and ask her to repeat herself if necessary.
- Some people need extra time to process speech or turn their thoughts into spoken words (regardless of intellectual ability). It’s okay if there are long pauses in the conversation.
6. Don’t be afraid of asking about a person’s disability.
It may not be appropriate to ask about someone’s disability out of curiosity, but if you feel this might help you make a situation easier for her (like asking a person if she would prefer to take the elevator with you instead of the stairs if you see she has trouble walking), it is appropriate to ask questions. Chances are, she has been asked about her disability repeatedly over her life and knows how to explain it in a few sentences. If the disability resulted from an accident or the person finds the information too personal, she will most likely answer that she prefers not to discuss it.
- Assuming you know what her disability is can be offensive; it is better to ask than to presume knowledge.
7. Recognize that some disabilities are not visible.
If you see someone who appears able-bodied parking in a handicapped spot, don’t confront her and accuse her of lacking a disability; she may have a disability you cannot see. Sometimes called “invisible disabilities,” disabilities that cannot be immediately seen are still disabilities.
- A good habit to be in is to act kindly and considerately towards everyone; you can’t know someone’s situation by just looking at her.
- Some disabilities vary from day to day: someone who needed a wheelchair yesterday might only need a cane today. This doesn’t mean they’re faking it or “getting better,” just that they have good days and bad days like everyone else.
1. Put yourself in the position of someone with a disability.
It may be easier to understand how to interact with people who have disabilities if you imagine having a disability yourself. Think about how you would want people to talk to or treat you. It’s likely that you wanted to be treated just as you are now.
- Therefore, you should talk to people with disabilities as you would anyone else. Welcome a new coworker with a disability as you would anyone else new to your workplace. Never stare at someone with a disability or act condescending or patronizing.
- Don’t focus on the disability. It is not important that you figure out the nature of someone’s disability. It is only important that you treat her equally, talk to her as you would to anyone else, and act as you would normally act if a new person entered into your life.
2. Offer genuine help.
Some people are hesitant to offer to help someone with a disability for fear of offending her. Indeed, if you are offering help because of an assumption that someone cannot do something herself, your offer could be offensive. However, very few people would be offended by a genuine, specific offer of assistance.
- Many people with disabilities are hesitant to ask for help, but may be grateful for an offer.
- For example, if you go shopping with a friend who uses a wheelchair, you could ask if she needs assistance carrying her bags or attaching them to her wheelchair. Offering to help a friend is not usually offensive.
- If you are not sure of a specific way to help, you can ask, “Is there anything that I can do to help you right now?”
- Never “help” someone without asking first; for example, do not grab someone’s wheelchair and try to push her up a steep ramp. Instead, ask if she needs a push or if you can do anything else to make it easier for her to navigate the terrain.
3. Don’t play with service dogs.
Service dogs are obviously cute and well trained, making them perfect candidates for cuddling and play time. However, they are used for helping the person with the disability, and are necessary for performing common tasks. If you take time to play with the dog without asking permission, you may be distracting the dog from an important task it needs to perform for its owner. If you see a service dog in action, you should not distract it by petting it. If the dog is not doing any tasks, you can ask the owner permission to pet it or play with it. Keep in mind though that you may be turned down, in which case you should not be upset or disappointed.
- Don’t give a service dog food or treats of any kind without permission.
- Don’t try to distract a service dog by calling it pet names, even if you don’t actually pet or touch it.
4. Avoid playing with someone’s wheelchair or walking device.
A wheelchair might seem like a good place to rest your arm, but doing so can be uncomfortable or annoying to the person sitting in it. Unless you’re asked to help someone by pushing or moving her wheelchair, you should never touch or play with it. The same advice goes for walkers, scooters, crutches, or any other device someone might be using for everyday functioning. If you ever feel the need to move someone’s wheelchair, you should ask permission first, and wait for her response. Do not ask to play with someone’s wheelchair, as it is a childish question and it may make the person feel uncomfortable.
- Treat disability equipment like extensions of their body: you wouldn’t grab and move someone’s hand or decide to lean up against their shoulder. Behave the same way towards their equipment.
- Any tool or device a person might use to help with her disability, such as a hand-held translator or an oxygen tank, should never be touched unless you are directed to do so.
5. Acknowledge that most people with disabilities have adapted.
Some disabilities are present from birth, and others come later in life due to development, accident, or illness. However the disability developed, most people learn how to adapt and take care of themselves independently. Most are independent in everyday living, requiring little help from others. As a result, it can be offensive or annoying to assume that someone with a disability cannot do many things, or to constantly try to do things for her. If you help a lot of the time and in a childish voice, this may be annoying. Work under the assumption that the person can accomplish whatever task is at hand by herself.
- A person who gets a disability as a result of an accident later in life may require more help than someone with a life-long disability, but you should always wait until they ask for your help before assuming they need it.
- Don’t avoid asking someone with a disability to do a certain task because you worry they can’t accomplish it.
- If you do offer help, make the offer genuine and specific. If you are offering from a place of genuine kindness, and not an assumption that the person cannot do something, you’re less likely to offend.
6. Avoid getting in the way.
Try to be courteous around people with physical disabilities by staying out of the way. Move to the side if you see someone attempting to navigate in a wheelchair. Move your feet out of the path of someone who is using a cane or a walker. If you notice that someone does not seem to be strong and steady on her feet, offer help verbally. Don’t invade someone’s personal space, just as you would not invade anyone else’s. However, if someone asks you for assistance, be prepared to give it.
- Do not touch anyone’s equipment or pet without asking. Remember that a wheelchair or other aid ispersonal space; it’s part of the person. Please respect that.