This is the first 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 open the series looking at the disability etiquette surrounding wheelchair users and those with impaired mobility.
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 Scope, Whizz Kidz and www.wheelchairfoundation.org.uk. City Connect aims to help readers avoid disability discrimination by providing clear guidelines on disability etiquette.
People who use wheelchairs have different disabilities and varying abilities. Some can use their arms and hands. Some can get out of their wheelchairs and even walk for short distances. Taking this into consideration and the points below should help you avoid a faux pas.
- Wheelchair users are people, not equipment. Don’t lean over someone in a wheelchair to shake another person’s hand or ask a wheelchair user to hold coats. Setting your drink on the desktop attached to someone’s wheelchair is a definite no-no.
- Don’t push or touch a person’s wheelchair; it’s part of her personal space. If you help someone down a curb without waiting for instructions, you may dump her out of the chair. You may detach the chair’s parts if you lift it by the handles or the footrest.
- Keep the ramps and wheelchair-accessible doors to your building unlocked and unblocked. Be respectful of their space, displays should not be in front of entrances, wastebaskets should not be in the middle of aisles and boxes should not be stored on ramps.
- Be aware of wheelchair users’ reach limits. Place as many items as possible within their grasp. And make sure that there is a clear path of travel to shelves and display racks. When talking to a wheelchair user, grab your own chair and sit at her level. If that’s not possible, stand at a slight distance, so that she isn’t straining her neck to make eye contact with you.
- If the service counter at your place of business is too high for a wheelchair user to see over, step around it to provide service. Have a clipboard handy if filling in forms or providing signatures is expected.
- If your building has different routes through it, be sure that signs direct wheelchair users to the most accessible ways around the facility. People who walk with a cane or crutches also need to know the easiest way to get around a place, but stairs may be easier for them than a ramp. Ensure that security guards and receptionists can answer questions about the most accessible way around the building and grounds.
- If the nearest public toilet is not accessible or is located on an inaccessible floor, allow the person in a wheelchair to use a private or employees’ accessible toilet.
- People who use canes or crutches need their arms to balance themselves, so never grab them. People who have limited mobility may lean on a door for support as they open it. Pushing the door open from behind or unexpectedly opening the door may cause them to fall. Even pulling out or pushing in a chair may present a problem. Always ask before offering help.
- If you offer a seat to a person who has limited mobility, keep in mind that chairs with arms or with higher seats are easier for some people to use.
- Falls are a big problem for people who have limited mobility. Be sure to set out adequate warning signs after washing floors. Also put out mats on rainy or snowy days to keep the floors as dry as possible. (Make sure they don’t bunch up and make the floor impassable for wheelchair users.)
- People who do not have a visible disability may have needs related to their mobility. For example, a person with a respiratory or heart condition may have trouble walking long distances or walking quickly. Be sure that your museum, hotel or department store has ample benches for people to sit and rest on.
- Some people have limited use of their hands, wrists or arms. Be prepared to offer assistance with reaching for, grasping or lifting objects, opening doors and display cases, and operating vending machines and other equipment.
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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