This is the second 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 continue the series with a look at the disability etiquette surrounding people who are blind or have low vision.
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 the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Guide Dogs and www.camsight.org.uk. City Connect aims to help readers avoid disability discrimination by providing clear guidelines on disability etiquette.
People who are Blind
People who are blind know how to orient themselves and get around on the street. They are competent to travel unassisted, though they may use a cane or a guide dog. A person may have a visual disability that is not obvious. Below are a few pointers to help you on your way to avoiding a faux pas.
- Identify yourself before you make physical contact with a person who is blind. Tell him your name and your role if it’s appropriate, such as security guard, usher, case worker, receptionist or fellow student. And be sure to introduce him to others who are in the group, so that he’s not excluded.
- If a new customer or employee is blind or visually impaired, offer him a tour of your facility.
- If you have changed your facility (i.e., rearranged the furniture) notify your customers who are blind of the changes.
- People who are blind need their arms for balance, so offer your arm—don’t take his—if he needs to be guided. (It is however appropriate to guide a blind person’s hand to a banister or the back of a chair to help direct him to a stairway or a seat.)
- If the person has a guide dog, walk on the side opposite the dog. As you are walking, describe the setting, noting any obstacles, such as stairs (‘up’ or ‘down’) or a big crack in the pavement. Other hazards include: revolving doors, half-opened filing cabinets or doors, and objects protruding from the wall at head level such as hanging plants or lamps. If you are going to give a warning, be specific. Shouting “Look out!” does not tell the person if he should stop, run, duck or jump.
- If you are giving directions, give specific, nonvisual information. Rather than say, “Go to your right when you reach the office supplies,” which assumes the person knows where the office supplies are, say, “Walk forward to the end of this aisle and make a full right.”
- If you need to leave a person who is blind, inform him first and let him know where the exit is, then leave him near a wall, table, or some other landmark. The middle of a room will seem like the middle of nowhere to him.
- Don’t touch the person’s cane or guide dog. The dog is working and needs to concentrate. The cane is part of the individual’s personal space. If the person puts the cane down, don’t move it. Let him know if it’s in the way.
- Offer to read written information—such as the menu, merchandise labels or bank statements—to customers who are blind. Count out change so that they know which notes and coins are which.
- If you serve food to a person who is blind, let him know where it is on the plate according to a clock orientation (twelve o’clock is furthest from them, six o’clock is nearest). Remove garnishes and anything that is not edible from the plate. Some customers may ask you to cut their food; this can be done in the restaurant’s kitchen before the meal is served.
People With Low Vision
- A person who has low vision may need written material in large print. A clear font with appropriate spacing is just as important as the type size. Labels and signs should be clearly lettered in contrasting colours. It is easiest for most people with low vision impairments to read bold white letters on black background. Avoid using all uppercase letters because it is more difficult for people with low vision to distinguish the end of a sentence.
- Good lighting is important, but it shouldn’t be too bright. In fact, very shiny paper or walls can produce a glare that disturbs people’s eyes.
- Keep walkways clear of obstructions. If people with low vision regularly use your facility as customers or employees, inform them about any physical changes, such as rearranged furniture, equipment or other items that have been moved.
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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