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The Etiquette of Interacting with People with Disabilities

Do you ever encounter a person with a disability, and you suddenly freeze up? You try to avoid eye contact, so you don’t appear to be staring, or you shy away from interacting with the person because you don’t know how?


Communicating with people with disabilities may seem intimidating, but it is important to remember that these people are just people like you and me and should be treated no differently. It all boils down to increasing your awareness and learning the etiquette when interacting with people with disabilities. The tips below will help you gain awareness and let go of your fears. 


Appropriate Terminology


Firstly, before knowing how to communicate with a person with disabilities, you must know the appropriate terminology. Always remember the golden rule when referring to an individual with disabilities, also known as “people first” language. This means you should always put the person first and the disability second. This is because people with disabilities want to be seen as people first, rather than being identified and labelled by their disability. For example, say “child with autism”, rather than “autistic child”, say “person with cerebral palsy”, instead of “Cerebral Palsied”. Always remember if you are unsure of what to say, just ask. Avoid using offensive terminology such as “retard”, “deformed” or “handicapped”.


Avoid Assumptions


When interacting with people with disabilities, we often assume that we know what the person wants or feels. We also tend to assume the extent of their disability, and disregard them in certain situations. For example, if a child has down syndrome, you might automatically assume they have severe cognitive delays and are unable to keep up academically. But in reality, down syndrome differs for each individual, and most people with the disability have mild to moderate delays. We also tend to make assumptions about the feelings of individuals with disabilities. We assume that they have negative feelings, bitterness and hatred. Avoid making these assumptions. Don’t show pity and sympathy. They don’t want people to feel sorry for them; they want to be treated like everyone else. Statements like “I feel so bad for you” or “I’m so sorry you have this problem” can be taken as offensive and make the individual annoyed and uncomfortable.


Be patient


When talking to a person that has difficulty speaking, listen attentively, and wait for the person to finish. Maintain eye contact. Do not interrupt, interject or complete their sentences for them. This makes them feel unimportant and frustrated. Do not pretend to understand if you don’t. Instead, repeat what you think you understand and let the persons response guide your understanding. 

Patience must also be exercised with those who lack muscle control, such as individuals with cerebral palsy. They may need more time to do specific tasks or get somewhere. Be aware and mindful not to rush them or make them feel pressured. Do not let them feel like they are a burden to you.


Speak normally


Avoid using baby talk when speaking to adults. Think of how demeaning it would feel if someone spoke to you in that manner. Do not speak extra loudly, unless the person asked you to due to specific reasons such as hearing impairments. Avoid condescending gestures such as patting on the head. 

Another point to take note of is to always speak directly to the person rather than through a third party or a caregiver. It is highly frustrating to feel ignored every time a person is talking to you. Even if the person is hard of hearing and has a translator, still speak directly to that person.

If you are speaking to a person in a wheelchair, avoid standing up and looking down at them. Sit down, so you are at eye level. This prevents them from feeling inferior, as well as straining their neck to look up at you.


Ask before assisting


Before helping always ask politely without sounding disrespectful or contemptuous. Some people with disabilities may not want your help, even if you think they do. Helping without asking can imply that they are incapable, and this is insulting. Do not get offended if a person refuses your offer. Respect their choices, just as you would anyone else. Some phrases you could use to offer assistance include, “Is there anything I could help you with?” or “Do you need any assistance?”

Do not move or touch a person’s wheelchair or mobility device without asking or being asked. This is a part of their personal space and. It is rude and impolite. 

When interacting with a person who has visual impairments, always be aware and introduce yourself and others, announce your arrival and departure.


To conclude, interacting with individuals with disabilities is not as daunting as it may seem. Practicing these simple tips can leave you feeling more comfortable and confident to engage with individuals with disability. Always remind yourself to take into account the person's feelings and treat them the way you would treat anyone else. Every individual is unique, and when in doubt, just ask


Written by Mu’aaza Suleman

A dedicated Khadoum volunteer


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