Statistics tell us that one in 10 persons living today has a disability. So it might seem strange, when you think about it, that many of us still feel awkward in the company of someone with a disability.
Situation 1: You work for a company that hires people with disabilities. You believe in inclusive hiring too–at least, you hope you do. You want to befriend them but you suspect they can tell you’re trying–too hard.
Situation 2: You’re over the moon about a girl you’ve met online, because she seems to like you almost as much as you like her. There’s just a catch: She’s told you she uses a wheelchair, and you don’t know how to act when you meet for your first date next week.
Situation 3: Your six-year-old has new friends she can’t stop raving about. But she also mentions one friend who doesn’t respond to her questions. You join her friends one day at the playground. And that’s then when you realise: that special friend of hers has special needs, and you don’t really know how to interact with the boy or his mother.
The solution to all these situations comes down to one thing: treat people as people, disabled or otherwise. With these tips, you can make yourself and your company feel comfortable.
1: Don’t assume
The idea that human relationships are built upon things in common is what leads to this next social faux pas: assumed first-hand knowledge. The disability equivalent of “Oh you’re Japanese? I LOVE sushi too!” is “Oh you lost your hearing in one ear? Too bad, I wanted to become a pianist too when I was young.”
It pays to listen first, and talk less.
2: Don’t be intrusive
As a child, you may have been told by your parents and teachers to always help the old lady cross the road whenever you spot one. But you’re older now, and you know better: Be respectful of others’ personal space. Always ask before you help. Things not to touch without asking: people’s shoulders, hands, their wheelchair handlebars, white canes, and service dogs.
Also: Most people will accept your help, but sometimes they’ll prefer to do things themselves. Don’t get confused or, worse, feel hurt if they decline your help.
3: Make eye contact
Make eye contact. No, really. Your father was right when he asked to look him in the eye when talking. And talk directly to the person: not their caregiver, not the person assigned to interpret for them in sign language. Don’t make them feel like they’re not there.
4: Political correctness doesn’t save you embarrassment
You may have heard that everyone loves to hear their name being spoken. The corollary: No one appreciates being addressed as a category, not even when you think you’re using the politically-correct terms. No one appreciates a letter that opens with, “Dear person with disabilties”.
Speaking of “person with disabilities”, the so-called person-first language isn’t a matter of writing “person with blindness” rather than “blind person”. It means to speak as a person first and foremost, and not speak to the stereotype.
And it’s all about context: It’s one thing ask someone in a wheelchair, “Can you step over here?” It’s another thing to feel guilty to ask, “Did you hear about this news?” when talking someone who’s using a hearing aid.
In short, you shouldn’t have to walk on eggs every time you talk to someone with a disability. Don’t assume that a disability always means a chip on the shoulder, ready to take offence at every mistake. As long as you’re authentic and conscious, you should do fine.