Disabilities/Disability Etiquette

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Disability Etiquette descibes the generally accepted ways in which one may best interact with disabled persons. These rules have been developed based on the needs of the disabled, and to combat misconceptions widely held by the able community. Lists such as the following, and close variants of it, are widely used in training people who deal with the general public (including people with disabilities) and are endorsed by a number of organizations.

See these examples of similar lists:

United Cerebral Palsy/ Access Americorps
Easter Seals
Memphis Center for Independent Living

An important reason to read and understand these guidlines 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 is wise to consider the following guidelines:

1. Do not offer to help a disabled person. Wait for him/her to ask for help or possibly not ask at all. This does not apply to a disabled person needing help who cannot express this need. 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 an uncomfortable reminder that they are perceived as being unable to care for their own needs. In any case, if a real need for help is perceived, one is wise to always offer first, and then respect the disabled person's wishes - don't just dive in and help.

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 onesself 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/she will do so. A disabled person has the right to believe that he/she is interesting per se. In other words, they want to be judged by what they are, as individuals, in the same manner as able people.

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 disabilies." 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 embarassed 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 yor range of vision. Watch particlularly how they use alternative means to talk, get around etc.

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

5. If a disabled person has an escort or aide, talk only to the 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 disabed 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.