This is the fourth part in a series of articles which raises awareness of commonly encountered disabilities and offers advice on how to interact with people with disabilities. We end the series with a look at the disability etiquette surrounding people with mental health problems or learning disabilities.
This series is based on the disability etiquette material published by the United Spinal Association and is an opportunity for City Connect to promote the excellent charity work done by disability charities, in particular Mind and Mencap. City Connect aims to help readers avoid disability discrimination by providing clear guidelines on disability etiquette.
Psychiatric Disabilities (Mental Illness)
People with psychiatric disabilities may at times have difficulty coping with the tasks and interactions of daily life. Their disorder may interfere with their ability to feel, think or relate to others. Most people with psychiatric disabilities are not violent. One of the main obstacles they face is the attitudes that people have about them. Because it is a hidden disability, chances are you will not even realize that the person has a mental health condition.
- Stress can affect the person’s ability to function. Try to keep the pressure of the situation to a minimum.
- People who have psychiatric disabilities have varying personalities and different ways of coping with their disability. Some may have trouble picking up on social cues; others may be supersensitive. One person may be very high energy, while someone else may appear sluggish. Treat each person as an individual. Ask what will make him most comfortable and respect his needs to the maximum extent possible.
- In a crisis, stay calm and be supportive as you would with anyone. Ask how you can help, and find out if there is a support person who can be sent for. If appropriate, you might ask if the person has medication that he needs to take.
People with developmental disabilities learn slowly. They have a hard time using what they have learned and applying it from one setting or situation to another.
- Speak to the person in clear sentences, using simple words and concrete—rather than abstract—concepts. Help her understand a complex idea by breaking it down into smaller parts.
- Don’t use baby talk or talk down to people who have developmental disabilities. Gauge the pace, complexity, and vocabulary of your speech according to theirs.
- Remember that the person is an adult and, unless you are informed otherwise, can make her own decisions.
- People with developmental disabilities may be anxious to please. During an interview, the person may tell you what she thinks you want to hear. In certain situations, such as law enforcement or a doctor’s examination, it can have grave consequences if your interview technique is not effective. Questions should be phrased in a neutral way to elicit accurate information. Verify responses by repeating each question in a different way.
- It can be difficult for people with developmental disabilities to make quick decisions. Be patient and allow the person to take their time.
- Clear signage with pictograms can help a person who has developmental disabilities to find her way around a facility.
- People with developmental disabilities often rely on routine and on the familiar to manage work and daily living. Be aware that a change in the environment or in a routine may require some attention and a period of adjustment.
People with Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities are life long disorders that interfere with a person’s ability to receive, express or process information. Although they have certain limitations, most people with learning disabilities have average or above-average intelligence. You may not realize that the person has a learning disability because he functions so well. Or you may be confused about why such a high-functioning person has problems in one aspect of his work.
- People with dyslexia or other reading disabilities have trouble reading written information. Give them verbal explanations and allow extra time for reading.
- Don’t be surprised if you tell someone very simple instructions and he requests that you write them down. Because spoken information gets “scrambled” as he listens, a person who has a learning disability such as auditory processing disorder may need information demonstrated or in writing.
- Ask the person how you can best relay information. Be direct in your communication. A person with a learning disability may have trouble grasping subtleties.
- It may be easier for the person to function in a quiet environment without distractions, such as a radio playing, people moving around or loudly patterned curtains.
People with Traumatic (or Acquired) Brain Injury
People with traumatic brain injury have had damage to the brain usually as the result of trauma, such as an accident or stroke.
- Some of the factors that affect persons with learning disabilities also apply to persons with traumatic brain injury. People with brain injury may have a loss of muscle control or mobility that is not obvious. For example, a person may not be able to sign her name, even though she can move her hand.
- A person with a brain injury may have poor impulse control. The person may make inappropriate comments and may not understand social cues or “get” indications that she has offended someone. In her frustration to understand, or to get her own ideas across, she may seem pushy. All of these behaviours arise as a result of the injury.
- A person with a brain injury may be unable to follow directions due to poor short-term memory or poor directional orientation. She may ask to be accompanied, or she may use a guide dog for orientation, although she does not appear to be mobility impaired.
- If you are not sure that the person understands you, ask if she would like you to write down what you were saying.
- The person may have trouble concentrating or organizing her thoughts, especially in an over stimulating environment, like a crowded movie theatre or transportation terminal. Be patient. You might suggest going somewhere with fewer distractions.
Ask before you help
Just because someone has a disability, don’t assume she needs help. If the setting is accessible, people with disabilities can usually get around fine. Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it. And if she does want help, ask how before you act.
Be sensitive about physical contact
Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them—even if your intention is to assist—could knock them off balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his wheelchair, scooter or cane. People with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space.
Think before you speak
Always speak directly to the person with a disability, not to his companion, aide or sign language interpreter. Making small talk with a person who has a disability is great; just talk to him as you would with anyone else. Respect his privacy. If you ask about his disability, he may feel like you are treating him as a disability, not as a human being. (However, many people with disabilities are comfortable with children’s natural curiosity and do not mind if a child asks them questions.)
Don’t make assumptions
People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don’t make decisions for them about participating in any activity. Depending on the situation, it could be a violation of the law to exclude people because of a presumption about their limitations.
Respond graciously to requests
When people who have a disability ask for an accommodation at your business, it is not a complaint. It shows they feel comfortable enough in your establishment to ask for what they need. And if they get a positive response, they will probably come back again and tell their friends about the good service they received.
Say “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.”
Say “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.”
For specific disabilities, saying “person with Tourette syndrome” or “person who has cerebral palsy” is usually a safe bet.
Still, individuals do have their own preferences. If you are not sure what words to use, ask.
Avoid outdated terms like “handicapped” or “crippled.” Be aware that many people with disabilities dislike jargony, euphemistic terms like “physically challenged” and “differently abled.” Say “wheelchair user,” rather than “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound.” The wheelchair is what enables the person to get around and participate in society; it’s liberating, not confining.
With any disability, avoid negative, disempowering words, like “victim” or “sufferer.” Say “person with AIDS” instead of “AIDS victim” or “person who suffers from AIDS.”
It’s okay to use idiomatic expressions when talking to people with disabilities. For example, saying, “It was good to see you,” and “See you later,” to a person who is blind is completely acceptable; they use these expressions themselves all the time!
Many people who are Deaf communicate with sign language and consider themselves to be members of a cultural and linguistic minority group. They refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital “D,” and may be offended by the term “hearing impaired.” Others may not object to the term, but in general it is safest to refer to people who have hearing loss but who communicate in spoken language as “hard of hearing” and to people with profound hearing losses as Deaf or deaf.
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