It's an amazing phenomenon that many people with disabilities experience. You go to a room that will soon be filled with people. You settle in and wait for others to arrive. But when they do, no one sits in your row or at your table.
All too often, people who (as yet) have no disability ignore the ones who do. The reason is almost always borne of uncertainty, wondering if there are "rules." Here, then, are my own 10 elements of etiquette for easing interactions with people with disabilities.
1. Is it OK to offer help?
People with disabilities are just people.
Sometimes they use crutches or canes or guide dogs or wheelchairs or look different in other ways. But everyone needs help sometimes. If you think a person with a disability needs your help, offer it.
Sometimes the answer to your offer will be yes and sometimes no, but it will almost always be appreciated.
2. Is it OK to talk about hearing and seeing when talking to someone who is deaf or blind?
Of course it is. People who are deaf or blind live in the same world with people who hear and see in the usual ways. They enjoy the same movies and plays and concerts and basketball games.
It would make everyone feel uncomfortable and foolish to use different words for the same commonplace experiences. Blind people say, "I was watching TV last night" and "I'll see you later" to a friend. They say, "Let me see that" when they want to examine an object more closely.
Deaf people say, "I heard a funny story" and "Yes, I am listening to you" for the same reasons. Even if you "see" with your hands or "hear" with your eyes, the words we use are the same.
3. What should I do when I can't understand someone speaking?
People who have experienced a stroke, were born with cerebral palsy or have other neurological disorders will sometimes have speech that is difficult to understand. Impaired speech, however, doesn't mean impaired thoughts or feelings.
Please don't ignore what a person is saying because it is difficult to understand. Ask the person to repeat. If you understand part of the sentence, you might say something like, "I know you're asking me something about baseball, but I'm not sure what it is." Let comprehension and communication be a shared problem. It's frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as never being understood.
4. How do I let a blind or deaf person know I am speaking to them?
Use a person's name if you can: "Hey, John, that sweater's a great color for you" or "Do you want another beer, Mary?" If you don't know the name, tap him or her lightly on the arm. A blind person doesn't know he or she is being personally addressed without a name or some contact, and a deaf person has to see you to know you want conversation.
5. Speaking of speaking, always speak directly to the person with the disability. Ask me what I want to eat or do or look at, not the person I'm with. You learned in about the second grade that it was rude to talk about someone as though she weren't there, so why would you forget your manners just because a person is sitting in a wheelchair, has an unusual speech pattern or difficulty making eye contact? If the person has an intellectual disability that requires slower speech or more patience, you'll figure it out.
6. When you're speaking to a blind person, let them know if you are going to walk away.
A simple "I'm going to go talk to Sam for a minute" will suffice. It's embarrassing to be caught addressing the air or an empty chair because you don't realize your friend has gone to the bathroom.
7. When speaking with someone in a wheelchair, make eye contact.
Squat down to be at the same level with the person in the chair or, if convenient, pull up another chair for yourself.
8. Always ask permission to pet a guide dog or other assistance dog.
Guide dogs and other service animals are trained to guide or assist with physical tasks. The bond is essential. The dog depends on its human for food and affection. The human depends on the dog for safety and assistance. By petting without permission, you are endangering the safety of the person who uses the dog.
9. It's OK to ask about a person's disability.
Ask questions that express interest in the person here and now, about techniques or equipment or approaches to problems, rather than the "Why are you defective?" variety. We humans are all curious about one another, and most of us like to talk about our own lives. Asking, "How do you make a phone call when you can't hear?" or "How do you use the hand controls on your car?" will usually launch a lively exchange. It's interesting and not as intrusive — or even disparaging — as "What happened to you?" might be.
10. Afraid you'll forget all of the above in the anxiety of approaching a person with a disability?
The most important rule when encountering people with disabilities is to have the encounter. It's better to be asked to dance and get your feet stepped on than to be left at the table. It's better to be told a joke — even if you don't get it — than to be left out of the conversation. If simply treated as people first, most who have disabilities won't care as much if you get any of the other "rules" right.