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It's not uncommon to feel a bit uncertain talking to or interacting with someone who has a physical, sensory or intellectual disability. Socializing with people with disabilities need be no different from any other interactions. But, if you're not familiar with a given disability, you might fear either saying something offensive or doing the wrong thing by offering assistance. Here are some dos and don'ts to keep in mind.
1. 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. Disability of one kind or another is something that we all experience personally in life, eventually. Thus, we will all have times when we need a little help and understanding.
2. 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.
3. 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, but that does not mean they might need help at certain times.
4. 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.
5. Put yourself in their position. 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.
6. 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. For example, if a person has difficulty walking, ask them if they would prefer to take the elevator instead of the stairs. Chances are, they have 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.
7. 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.
8. 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 to help, but do not invade their personal space.
9. Unless asked to do so, do not touch their wheelchair or any aid device including guide, hearing or seeing-eye dog without asking.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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. Be respectful, above all else.
Interacting with People with Disabilities