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Disability etiquette

Disability etiquette describes the generally accepted ways in which we may best interact with disabled people. For example:

  • When you offer to assist someone with a vision impairment, allow the person to take your arm. This will help you to guide, rather than propel or lead, the person. (source: Easter Seals Disability Etiquette webpage (http://www.easter-seals.org/resources/disabili.asp))

These rules have been developed based on the needs of disabled people, and to combat misconceptions widely held by the more able community. Lists such as the following, and close variants of them, are widely used in training people who deal with the general public (including people with disabilities) and are endorsed by a number of organizations. Clearly the very preparation of these lists may be offensive to some, since it does presuppose a convergence of interests of people who are categorised in some way. Disabled people are not especially prone to being similar to one another in terms of their day-to-day needs, but then any form of etiquette tends to exaggerate the cohesion of society and play down human diversity.

See these examples of similar lists:

United Cerebral Palsy/ Access Americorps (http://www.etr.org/NSRC/rcv3n3/etiquette)
Easter Seals (http://www.easter-seals.org/resources/disabili.asp)
Memphis Center for Independent Living (http://home.mem.net/~mcil/mcil/etiqu01.htm)

Summarised briefly, most of these lists boil down to a few simple principles, namely:

  • Do not patronise the disabled; do not assume that someone who has a physical disability has also a mental one!
  • Do not ignore their abilities; and
  • Do not forget that they are people first, and disabled second.

An important reason to read and understand these guidelines is that they are often in conflict with the (often benevolent but misguided) impulses of the able. Therefore, if one wants to show concern and respect for a disabled person it is worth considering the following guidelines:

1. Do not help without first offering it, and respect the disabled person's wishes; do not even offer to help if you have the impression that he or she is neither to shy nor otherwise unable to ask help when needed. Disabled people, in general, naturally desire to be independent. Constant "hovering about" and offering to take care of every little thing, including taking over tasks they have begun, can be a discomforting reminder that they are perceived as being unable to care for their own needs.

2. Do not touch a disabled person's assistive devices without permission. This includes wheelchairs, canes, crutches, etc. This also includes service animals[?] such as seeing-eye dogs (whose discharge of their duties can be impaired by extraneous input from persons other than their owners). A disabled person's assistive equipment is part of his/her personal space. To touch it is equivalent to grabbing an able person's leg or arm without permission. Again, disabled people prefer to be as independent as possible. A person in a wheelchair does not want someone pushing them around without permission. Such a person is trying very hard to get around on his/her own. (See #1 on UCPA list.)

3. If a disabled person has an escort or aide, do not interact solely, or mainly, with such a companion. The disabled person is a person too. Do whatever is necessary to communicate with the disabled person. This includes kneeling down to make eye contact and talk to a person in a wheelchair, introducing oneself to a blind person and speaking enough to let them identify one's voice and location, and much more. (See #2 on UCPA list.)

4. Speak normally to a disabled person, using words like "see," "hear," "walk," etc., as you normally would. Disabled people are used to normal English. A blind person will not be insulted if one says, "It looks like it is going to rain," or "Do you see what I mean?" (See #7 on UCPA list.)

5. It is considered polite to offer to describe to a disabled person what he/she cannot perceive him/herself. If one is traveling in an unfamiliar place, offer to describe the scenery and where one is at different points to a blind person. If one is at a place where there is music or unusual noise, it is polite to offer to describe it to a deaf person.

6. Do not ask a disabled person how they got that way. If a disabled person chooses to share this information he or she will do so. A disabled person does not always want to talk about the disability, they are individuals with a life and personality that have many more aspects, like anyone else.

7. Do not make assumptions about what a disabled person can or cannot do based on stereotypes of different disabilities. In some ways this rule should come first. There is a saying that "We are all disabled by the stereotypes we hold of other people's disabilities." This is quite true. (See #3 and #8 on UCPA list for similar ideas.)

Alternative Approaches. These are somewhat sarcastic in tone, primarily as an exercise to get one to think about what has been done wrong in the past and/or how one's first impulses might be mistaken.

1. Hide disabled people from the public. This has been a popular approach for centuries. It has the notable advantage that the family is not embarrassed by the disabilities of the family member, which may make that member look less than normal.

2. Wait hand-and-foot on the disabled. This approach has the advantage that you can resolve some of your own guilt that this didn't happen to you. Also you can keep a disabled person quite dependent this way. That assures that they won't try to intrude on normal society. Hey, this approach might lead to their eventual institutionalization!

3. Ask the disabled nosy questions and stare. This approach has the advantage of learning all the gruesome details of how a disabled person became one. Then you can tell them about your operation. Make them know they are special by following them with your eyes right until they leave your range of vision. Watch particularly how they use alternative means to talk, get around, etc.

4, Ignore disabled people. You clearly have nothing in common with them. Anyway, who says they are entitled to anything. They are different from you, aren't they?

5. If a disabled person has an escort or aide, talk only to their companion. Consider the tough time such a companion is having. Discuss the problems they are having with their charge right in front of them. That should keep the disabled person conscious of their role and place in life - that of a burden on everyone else.

6. If a disabled person has an assistive device, take it and try it out. If they should fall or walk into a tree that way, well, remind them that sharing is important too.

7. Do not use words that refer to senses or abilities that the disabled person may not have. If you should forget and use such a word, laugh profusely at your faux pas, indicating that you do know just how different they are.

8. Use words such as "cripple" and "spastic" - after all their feelings don't matter because they are "different" to "normal" people.

9. When addressing people with hearing difficulties, stand in a dingy corner or with your back to a window so that they will find it hard to lip-read. Occasionally turn away or move your hand across your face to add to their difficulties.

10. Leave things in corridors or on pathways that blind and less agile people may trip over or find a nuisance.

11. Leave a vehicle in an area set aside for people less agile than yourself or somewhere a bus needs to get close to the curb. Place your own impatience above the reasonable needs of other people.

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