I remember back when I didn’t have any physical disabilities. I never really thought too much about some of the points made in the article below. As my Kennedy's Disease progressed, I found myself several times in a position that I needed help or understanding. Some of the kindest people are often strangers that I met once and will probably never meet again. Regularly, I find that a single act of kindness at a moment of need is remembered for years.
- Realize that disability is universal. Think about the friends or family members you know with disabilities. Perhaps they have arthritis or other physical limitations and are unable to walk up stairs. Perhaps they have a hearing problem, or are on a special diet due to diabetes, or have a visual impairment and wear glasses. Disability of one kind or another is something that we all experience personally in life, sooner or later. Thus we will all have times when we need a little help and understanding.
- Learn from people in your life. If you are able to be considerate of the people you know, you will also be able to do the same for strangers. Ask the people you know how they feel, what they prefer, how they react to situations, and take your cues and lessons from them. You can use the same lessons with strangers.
- Understand that most people with disabilities have adapted to them. Some disabilities are present from birth, and others come later in life due to accident or illness, but either way, most people learn how to adapt and take care of themselves. Most are independent in everyday living.
- When people develop disabilities later in life, it may require lots of adjusting on their part. Things that they were able to do naturally now require adaptation and patience, and there are some things they may never be able to do without assistance or assistive technology. They may need help for tasks they once did without thought. But none of this means that they can't adapt to a new way of life, and as such, while they may require your support, they do not need your pity.
- Put yourself in their position. How do you want others to treat you? Talk to people with disabilities as you would anyone else. Welcome them if they are new in your class or workplace. Never stare at them or act condescending or patronizing. Don't focus on the disability. It is not important that you figure out what their particular problem is; it is only important that you treat them as an equal, talk to them as you would to anyone else, and act as you would normally act if a new person entered into your life.
- Don't be afraid of asking what disability a person is dealing with if you feel this might help you make a situation easier for them (like asking a person if they would prefer to take the elevator with you instead of the stairs if you see they have trouble walking). Chances are, they've been asked that question a million times, and they know how to explain it in a few sentences. If the disability resulted from an accident or the person finds the information too personal, they will most likely answer that they prefer not to discuss it.
- Casually and naturally ask if you can be of assistance to them, as appropriate. Never act as if you have not noticed them. Ask if you can help, but do not insist on it if they tell you they do not need help. If they accept, help as you would anyone else, and follow their directions. Be friendly, be considerate and be supportive.
- Don't be afraid to offend anyone as long as you are polite and courteous. You don't have to be ashamed of being interested in people. If you want to verbalize your feelings, you can say you didn't mean to offend. The other person will probably reassure you. This way, nobody feels awkward and you don't have to avoid each other for the rest of the time. Questions don't hurt, but ignorance does.
- Avoid getting in the way. Move out of the way when you see someone attempting to navigate in a wheelchair. Move your feet out of the path of someone who is using a cane or a walker. If you notice that they might not be strong and steady on their feet, offer help verbally first. Don't invade their personal space, just as you would not invade anyone else's, but if they want assistance, be prepared to give it.
- Do not touch their wheelchair/any aid/guide dog/hearing dog/seeing eye dog/cat/any pet without asking. Remember their wheelchair/aid is their personal space; it's part of the person. Please respect that.
- Be patient. For example, if the person in front of you is slowly walking down the stairs, do not mutter under your breath or sigh deeply. Show the same kind of patience that you would want in their shoes - and may in fact want in the future yourself, if your mobility is limited by a future accident or condition.
- Teach your children to be kind and understanding. Take a zero tolerance policy on laughing at someone who might look strange or funny to them. Teach them that all people have feelings, just like they do, and that they should accept their differences without judgment. It's okay for children to be curious and ask you discrete questions about disability, but it's not okay for them to single out the people they see for ridicule, or make them feel uncomfortable.
- Remember that age and disability do not have to be related. The young can have disabilities. Likewise, don't assume that all old people have disabilities. While growing old can impact someone's hearing, eyesight, and mobility, disability has much less to do with age than the stereotypes suggest.
- Remember that people are, first and foremost, people. Offering help to someone with a disability should come from kindness, not a sense of pity or a perception of weakness. Seek to help others, and if you find yourself being offered help, regardless of whether you have a disability, accept it gratefully, with a smile and a thank you.
- Simply ignoring a person with a disability because you think the person may not want to discuss it may make the person feel inadequate. They may think that you don't want to deal with them as a fellow human being or that you are trying to avoid being asked for help. Acknowledge them like you would any other person. While disability does not define them, it is a part of their reality, and simply not acknowledging that it's there is like only acknowledging them in part.
- Be respectful, above all else. Just because someone is disabled does not mean they should be treated with any less respect than anyone else. View others as people, not impairments. Focus on the person at hand, and their individual personality. If you must put a "label" on the disability, it's best to ask what terminology they prefer and stick with the terms they choose.
- Many, but not all, people with disabilities prefer "people first" language, which puts the name or person before the disability. For example, you would say "Robert has cerebral palsy," "Leslie is partially sighted," or "Sarah uses a wheelchair," rather than saying he "is mentally challenged/handicapped" (both of which are often seen as patronizing terms) or referring to "the blind girl" or "the girl in the wheelchair."