It’s essential to understand the right way to interact with people that have disabilities. Realistically, many of you may have never been in a situation like this before. As a result, the whole scenario is very new to you. You’re unsure how to act, but you want to avoid giving offence. This leads to many people worry about how they should act when they encounter someone with a disability.
You’ll be pleased to know that interacting with someone that has a disability is not too dissimilar to interacting with able-bodied individuals. There are a few things that you should and shouldn’t do – depending on the disability – but the general consensus is that you shouldn’t act any differently. Below, you’ll see a breakdown of the top tips to help you learn the best way to approach this situation if you ever end up in it.
Talk and interact as you would with anyone
The biggest error is assuming that someone with a disability can’t comprehend what you’re saying. As a result, you’re inclined to slow your speech and interact with them like they’re a child. This is wildly offensive, particularly if the individual suffers from no mental or cognitive disability whatsoever.
A good approach is to talk to them as you would talk to anyone else. Don’t adjust your tone or put on a fake voice – be yourself. It’s a simple case of being kind and beginning the conversation in a normal manner. The other benefit of this is that it helps you gauge if someone can understand you or not. You may realise that they’re not getting the gist of what you’re saying, in which case you can seek different ways of speaking to them. Of course, these alternative methods will depend on the disability at hand.
Address the individual, not anyone else
Many people with disabilities will have carers helping them get around. This is commonly the case with people that have severe physical disabilities. Regardless, it’s bad manners to speak to the carer instead of the individual. Why? Because it’s almost like you’re ignoring the person or think they can’t speak for themselves. Again, it’s akin to the way you’d speak to a child. If you met a friend in a shop with their little son, you’d likely speak to your friend about their son because you know they wouldn’t comprehend your questions. Imagine how insulting this would feel to an adult with a disability.
Be mindful of your language
It’s always advisable to be mindful of your language when interacting with people with disabilities. If you’re not careful, you can cause offence – particularly when talking about their disability. It’s very bad manners to use words like ‘suffers from a disability’ or ‘is crippled by a disability’ as they have very negative connotations. These phrases make it seem like someone’s life is ruined because of their disability, almost as though they have no control over anything they do. Most people will be offended by this, particularly as it makes them think that you see them as a victim. From their perspective, they think you feel sorry for them because of their disability. In reality, most people with disabilities aren’t looking for sympathy – they just wanted to be treated as equals.
The same goes for the term ‘a disabled person.’ This is something you should never say as it defines the person by their disability. You’re labelling them as a disabled person, rather than a regular person that’s living with a disability.
Understand personal space & boundaries
Some people will have equipment or instruments to help them get on with their lives. The most common example of this is a wheelchair, assisting people with physical disabilities. You have to understand that any equipment someone uses is considered part of their personal space. With that in mind, do you think it’s appropriate to rest a hand on their wheelchair? Technically, you’re not touching the person, but it’s the same intention. They see the wheelchair as part of their property and personal space. As such, you shouldn’t touch it without asking as it’s very invasive.
The same goes for other disability aids and devices as well. For instance, don’t move someone’s crutch when they’re sitting down. Think about it this way, if your phone was on a table, how would you feel if someone picked it up and moved it without asking? You’d be incredibly offended as they’re touching your personal property. Just be mindful of anything that a person might use to help them out, and stay out of their personal space.
One final note on this topic; the same rules apply to guide dogs. Individuals with vision impairments may need a guide dog to help them walk around safely. It’s never advised that you go up to a guide dog and start petting it or talking to it. The same reasons as above apply, but there’s the added reason of it being dangerous. You could distract the dog from doing its job, putting the individual in danger.
Always ask before offering any help
Another common mistake is to assume someone with a disability needs your help. Once more, it stems from this mindset that people with disabilities can’t do anything. You see someone with a crutch and instantly assume that they’re incapable of reaching up and grabbing the toilet roll from the shelf in the store. Or, you see someone with a vision disability at a set of traffic lights and think it’s your duty to help them cross.
It might sound harsh, but most people with disabilities don’t want your help. Well, more accurately, they don’t want you to help them without asking beforehand. All you have to do is politely ask if they need a hand – only if it looks like they might be struggling. This is a simple way of seeing if you’re needed or not. If they say no, then that’s fine, and you can get on with your day. It’s much better than instantly helping someone without seeing if they need it.
This tip is split into two different sections. The first one relates to people with vision impairments. In these situations, they might not be able to see where you are, so it’s a good idea to introduce yourself beforehand. Say your name, let them know where you’re standing, and you can carry on the conversation from there. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t do this. People with vision impairments will tell you how embarrassing it is when they’re trying to converse with someone and looking in the complete opposite direction. That’s one of the reasons why you introduce yourself – it announces your presence and they can turn to the sound of your voice.
Secondly, you need to introduce yourself in a different way to people with hearing disabilities. Here, all you need to do is visually make it obvious that you’re trying to communicate with them. Waving at them is the best way to do this, but you may have to give them a gentle tap on the shoulder if they’re facing the wrong way. Always be sure to make your mouth visible when you’re conversing with them, and speak as clearly as can be. Don’t exaggerate your mouth movements or they’ll find it harder to read your lips.
Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, it’s not a good idea to raise your voice when talking to people with hearing disabilities. Your shouting won’t help them, but it does draw more attention to your private conversation, which can put them on edge.
Be wary of your body language
Body language is a key thing when communicating with certain people with disabilities. Again, people with hearing disabilities are a fantastic example. If you’re open with your body language and use lots of gestures, it communicates more information to them. They’ll be able to tell if you’re happy, sad, or whatever.
The same goes for people with intellectual disabilities. They might find it harder to understand what you’re saying, but they can read your body language. It’s common for people with these kinds of disability to heavily rely on visual cues. So, be conscious of this whenever you interact with them.
Don’t patronise the individual
This has been touched upon a few times, but it’s a fundamental rule of interacting with people living with disabilities. Never ever patronise someone because of their disability. They are probably sick to death of hearing people say ‘you’re so brave’ that it’s lost all meaning to them.
In truth, the main thing to think about is the very first point: talk to people with disabilities as you would talk to anyone else. That’s all you have to think about when interacting or communicating with people that have disabilities. If you can manage that, you’re already on the right path. Then, consider some of the other tips about personal space, asking for help, body language, etc. Hopefully, this guide has shown you the right way to communicate with people with disabilities, so you make them feel at ease.