I often have people tell me that they feel uncomfortable around people with disabilities and don’t know how to interact with them.
I say, just be yourself.
You may not need to say anything. Treat the person with the disability with the same respect and good etiquette as you would anyone in your community.
One common question is, “Should I offer assistance to people with disabilities” As with anyone in your community, if you see a person with a disability that seems to be needing help, just ask first if he or she needs help, as is common courtesy for anyone. The key is to wait and listen to the answer.
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If they say no, accept that. Don’t make assumptions. People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do.
If the person’s answer is yes, ask for instructions on how you can help. Listen and follow the instructions.
I am a wheelchair user and often have people ask me if I need help. Sometimes I say thank you but I’m OK. Sometimes holding the heavy door is helpful and I say yes. On occasions, I have said no thank you and the person did what they assumed I needed anyway.
For example, I was taking apart my wheelchair to put into my car. A stranger asked if I needed help. I told the stranger no thank you. Instead, the stranger lifted my wheelchair and put it into my car in a way that I could not get it out when I got home. I had to call a neighbor to come help me. If the stranger had listened to my answer, I would have had a less frustrating day.
A few common mistakes people make when interacting with people with disabilities include not looking at us when talking to us. It doesn’t matter if the person has a caretaker, a companion, or an interpreter – always look at the person with the disability when talking to her or him.
A second mistake occurs when people talk to people with disabilities in a patronizing voice or baby talk. If the person with a disability is an adult, treat that person as an adult. Strangers often talk to me in baby talk, which feels very awkward.
A third mistake is when strangers feel the need to say something. You don’t have to always say something.
For example, strangers on the street have said to me “you must have strong arms” or “you’re going to get a speeding ticket.” I think they may feel the need to say something that is positive. However, they don’t really need to say anything to me.
A final mistake is when people really care, are curious about a person with a disability, and then ask personal questions about the disability. It’s best to respect the person’s privacy. Allow the person to discuss his or her situation if he or she feels comfortable doing so.
I’m sure with all of these situations, people have good intentions.
Another common event is when people regret something they have said to a person with a disability, worrying it was inappropriate. Relax. It’s OK to use common expressions like “see you later,” “did you hear that” or “or do you want to take a walk” – even if the person can’t physically do any of those things. When my neighbor wants to walk around the block with me, he just asks me if I want to walk around the block. I say yes, even though I am actually wheeling around the block. It’s all right.
Just remember, people with disabilities are individuals with families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes, problems and joys, just like people without disabilities. Don’t make us into disability heroes or victims. Just treat us as individuals.
Pam Dickens is a community member in Hillsborough. She is a wheelchair user, has a master’s degree in public health and has worked in the field of disability and health for many years. This is part of our yearlong series of columns written by people with disabilities in our community. Write to Pam Dickens and all our writers in c/o firstname.lastname@example.org