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How to Interact with a Person who has a Disability

By Edited Nov 19, 2016 10 18

Raising a child born with a severe disability is challenging but not as challenging as dealing with the attitudes that people exhibit towards your child.

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Have you ever seen a group of children mocking the way a person with a disability walks?  Have you heard a person call a person with a disability a disparaging or cruel name?  Often it is because they don’t understand why a person is different from himself or herself and occasionally it is due to fear of the unknown.

It is important for people to understand disabilities, especially for young children.  Children will develop attitudes at a young age and if they aren’t addressed or corrected this attitude will continue into adulthood.

There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to interact with people with disabilities.  This begins with using preferred terms.  It is preferable to use the term “person with a disability” over the terms of “disabled” or “handicapped.”  Originally the term handicapped meant, “cap in hand” referring to beggars and begging.  We definitely know that a person that has a disability is not a beggar. 

Here are some helpful guidelines to use and to teach other to use when encountering a person who has a disability.

  • If you are in conversation with a person who has a disability, it is appropriate to ask about their disabilities.  Often they don’t mind having the opportunity to educate someone about the type of disability they might have.  However, don’t be offended if they decline to talk about their life.
  • Go ahead and offer to help someone, but don’t just assume they need help and then just go ahead and take it upon yourself to do things for them.  Offer politely or wait to be asked. 
  • If someone has a speech problem and you don’t understand something they have said, politely ask them to repeat what their statement. 

Person in a Wheelchair
  • Don’t assume that a person in a wheelchair is sick!  Most people in a wheelchair are perfectly healthy. 
  • When a person is blind, you don’t need to speak in a loud voice!  They can hear as well as you, maybe even better.
  • Never pet or play with Seeing Eye Dogs.  They should not be distracted from the job they are doing for their owner. 
  • Invite friends with disabilities to join you in your everyday activities and on special occasions.  It will be good for you to spend time with a person who has a disability and learn more about their lives as well.  Be considerate of the availability and convenience of amenities such as using the bathroom or being in a home with stairs.
  • Never park in parking spaces reserved for people with disabilities.  Teach the importance of this to your children.  A person in a wheelchair needs more space to maneuver in and out of their vehicle and the normal parking space usually doesn’t have enough space to accommodate them.
  • Don’t lean or hang onto a wheelchair.  This is the personal space of the person using the wheelchair and can make them feel very uncomfortable.
  • If you are trying to help someone who has a visual impairment, just offer him or her your arm.  This will help you to guide, rather than lead the person. 
    Bride with a Disability
  • When talking to someone with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or interpreter who may be accompany the person.  Personal note:  I have a daughter with cerebral palsy and when we go to restaurants the servers will quite often address me rather than speaking to her.  I usually just turn to her and then let her give the answer to make a point to the server.  After all, my daughter has three college degrees (graduating Suma Cum Laude) and is quite capable of speaking for herself!
  • Relax and don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use common everyday expressions, such as “See you later” or “Let’s run” that seems to be related to the person’s disability.  They probably didn’t even notice!
  • Don’t patronize a person with a disability.  If you can’t understand something they are saying, just tell them so and ask them to repeat what they said.  Never pretend to understand just to make them feel better.
  • If you have a child that is curious about people “who are different,” take the time to educate, as this will be the perfect opportunity to explain the differences and why they are so.  Talk about and discuss physical disabilities and the equipment that people who have physical disabilities may be using, like wheelchairs, leg braces, artificial arms or legs, hearing aids, etc.  Let them ask questions and do your best to answer and correct any misconceptions they might have.
  • Explain to young children that a person having a disability doesn’t mean that they can’t do the same types of things that person without disabilities does.  Explain that people with disabilities have jobs, go to school, are moms and dads, and love to do the things everyone else enjoys doing.
  • When planning events that will include a person with a disability, consider his or her needs ahead of time.  If an insurmountable barrier exists, let them know well ahead of time so they can offer a solution or alternative. 
  • Be considerate of the extra time it might take a person with a disability to get things done or to be ready.  Let the person with the disability set the pace when walking or doing other activities.
  • Never exclude a person from an event or activity just because you think they might have physical limitations that will keep them from participating.  They will often enjoy just being there. 
  • Do not stare at a person with a disability.  That is unforgivably rude!  Don’t be surprised if the person stares back at you!

Develop a “people first” attitude.  “People first” recognizes that although a person with a disability may appear different, they are people first and their disability comes second!

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Comments

Mar 15, 2011 1:19pm
sushantkshr
This is wonderful westernMom.......m your fan.....you are just wonderful....All the best......this should be Featured
Mar 17, 2011 4:13pm
southerngirl09
Thanks for sharing this great article on interacting with a person who has a disability. I agree with sushantkshr, this should be a Featured Article.
Mar 27, 2011 12:02am
dreamaker
Excellent work western mom you are A GREAT ADVOCATE, I was very happy to see this on the front page. Thumbs up!!!
Mar 27, 2011 8:46am
Venetia
Thank you for another very good, informative article...and educating people as to interacting with people who live with disabilities.
Mar 27, 2011 10:43am
westernmom
Thank you for your heart felt comments. This subject has been a part of my life for 43 years and I have been the one to be blessed.
Mar 27, 2011 10:55am
Deborah-Diane
Wonderful article. I work with special needs teens. Some of their disabilities are obvious, and some are not. We have one 14 year old at our school who has had two heart attacks while at school in the last 6 months. He looks normal, but moves very slowly and cannot climb stairs. I understand how much all of these kids want to be treated as normal, and how much they want others to listen to and respect their feelings and opinions. Great article!
Mar 29, 2011 5:00am
freedomw
Deborah-Diane, you're just telling us now that you work with special needs teens. I hope you will an article about how to work with them. When I was in elementary school, I had to see a speech therapist because I stuttered. The sessions helped me quite a bit.
Mar 29, 2011 2:20pm
jpwriter
I really enjoyed this article.

You do a nice job at pointing out some of the stereotypes and stigmas society attaches to people w/disabilities. The points about touching the wheelchair and not playing with a Seeing Eye Dog are excellent. The part about speaking loudly reminds me of how people tend to raise their voice to someone who speaks a different language, too. Humans are a strange breed!

There are so many subtle ways people with disabilities are treated. People who are disabled because of mental illness or other things not outwardly visible are also highly stigmatized. I'm not sure if it's worse and better, perhaps just different. The definition at the beginning added value to the article for me, so I'm glad you put it there.
Mar 29, 2011 7:42pm
footloose
All I can say is - it's about time! I worked with special needs kids and it was the most heart pleasing work ever. Also, they became my teachers in so many ways.Congratz on the double features!
Mar 31, 2011 6:36pm
MoGo
I am a mom of a deaf child and all you say is true. We are the advocates for our children and educating others is one way to do that. Thank you for your article.
Apr 8, 2011 3:25pm
bh25
Thanks for the article. It can be difficult sometimes to know what to say.
Apr 8, 2011 5:15pm
JudyE
Another great article. Very valid points. My brother is now totally blind and many of your comments are just so true. Great work.
Apr 14, 2011 11:29am
cabsolutions
Great article. I often ignore disabled people in the street because I assume they get enough attention already.

But they might not like this either!
Apr 24, 2011 1:13pm
iLOVEmyLIFE
Terrific article! Outstanding. I thought cabsolutions's comment added yet another dimension to the discussion -- non-disabled people aren't necessarily being rude or disrespectful. I believe most just have no idea what the proper protocol is. And sometimes staring is not negative. . .
I once saw a man at the park that had the most beautiful face I have ever seen. I was mesmerized. Have you ever seen someone who was so beautiful you couldn't take your eyes off him? I stood there debating over whether I had the courage to introduce myself. Suddenly he turned and scowled at me and went away. Suprised, I turned to the person next to me and said "Why did he scowl at me?" She said, "You were being rude. You aren't supposed to stare at people in wheelchairs." True story.
Apr 26, 2011 7:01am
AnaJackson
Great article! I agree with many of the points you share about interacting with a person who has a disability.
Aug 2, 2011 12:14am
Simmvee
I have never heard anyone mocking the way a person with a disability walks, and I grew up in a tough neighborhood. And I have never heard a person call a person with a disability a disparaging or cruel name. At least, not to their face.

Sure, raising a child born with a severe disability is indeed challenging. I myself have TWO such children. But sometimes, worse than "dealing with the attitudes that people exhibit towards the child", are the over sensitive parents that get offended for the smallest thing and turn molehills into mountains.

People are only human and make mistakes. Quite frequently too. If someone upsets you about with how they are misunderstanding towards your disabled child, just let it go and get over it. There are worse things in life to get upset about than a misguided comment.
Jul 9, 2013 7:22am
Januarius
Very interesting article.Indeed, it is true that disability is not inability.Personally, I underline three attitudes for those with disability,namely:concern,empathy and love.Big thumb.
Jul 9, 2013 4:02pm
Januarius
A many people are born with physical and mental disability.
Physical disability is becoming a new phenomenon to people in their adulthood.The diet-lifestyle-change has become a cause of diabetes,and the disease is causing blindness to people in their 40s and above.Some greedy
religious persons are using the disabled persons to make money. They solicit money from Western
donors to help the disabled but in reality they have no human concern,empathy and love for the disabled.They love money more than they love those with disability.
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