Etiquette & Awareness

What you say about a person can enhance the dignity of a person with a disability and promote positive attitudes about their ability. Learn to use basic etiquette when you meet people with disabilities. Far too often people unknowingly focus more on one’s disability rather than the person. Although usually not intentional, negative stereotypes and condescending phrases are commonly used when describing or talking to a person with a disability. Even in this age of political correctness, many people with the best intentions use unwelcome phrases with demeaning undertones.

Descriptive words can emphasize a person’s worth and abilities. For example, the phrase ‘person with a disability’ is preferred, over ‘the disabled or handicapped’ which tends to emphasize disability. This link provides a few examples of the many words and phrases used in speech or text that can denote either a positive or negative image.

Remember to treat people as you would like others to treat you. Do not show pity nor shower a person with praise as a superhero because they have a disability. What if you woke up and learned society’s views of disabled and non-disabled were reversed, how would you react? Isn’t this a powerful video?

General Tips

  • When meeting someone. There are numerous types of disabilities, so you may not be aware of the extent of use with one’s body. If you want to shake hands with someone who appears to have upper extremity limitations, extend your hand as you normally do, for a person who cannot shake hands will let you know. If a person looks like they can use help, always ask first if you can offer any assistance. For example, never push a person’s wheelchair without their permission. Most persons with disabilities are very independent, and know their capability better than anyone, so don’t be offended if your help is not required.
  • Communicating. Talk directly to the person, not their aide, friend, or interpreter. If a person has a speech impairment, and you do not understand what they said ask them to repeat it. If a person uses a wheelchair, and you are going to speak at length it is best to sit and converse at their level. If you meet someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, they may or may not use American Sign Language, so follow his or her lead, use gestures or write notes if possible.
  • Hidden Disabilities. A person may have trouble following a conversation, may not respond when you call or wave, or may say or do something that seems inappropriate for the situation. Remember that not all disabilities are apparent. So called ‘hidden’ disabilities are many, and may include diabetes, low vision, brain injury, hearing, mental illness or learning disability.
  • Socializing. Do not leave a person out of the conversation or activity because you believe they will feel uncomfortable. Let it be their decision whether or not to participate. Be aware of noisy or dark environments or large groups of people speaking simultaneously which may be difficult for people with vision, speech, or hearing impairments. Although accommodations may be provided at work, always give additional thought to everyone when planning company meetings and interfacing with other employees.
  • Don’t exhibit embarrassment. A lack of knowledge or misinformation about disabilities may lead you to shy away or keep you from interacting with others. Don’t refrain from using common phrases like ‘see you later’ with someone who is blind, or ‘let’s run to get lunch’ with someone who uses a wheelchair. A person with a disability will not be upset merely because you use an everyday expression. Misunderstandings and stereotypes often keep people from accepting another person, when in reality a disability is just one aspect of a person’s total being.
Discovery Exercise:

  1. Invite someone with a disability to your school and speak with the kids about their experiences. Write about this event.
  2. Take this quiz if you’re not sure if your knowledge and attitude relating to a person with disability is adequate and discover what areas of etiquette may still need some improving. Good luck! Write about your results and your reaction to those results.
  3. Check out your local Independent Living Center (ILC) and Assistive Technology Centers and find out what services are offered. Interview a staff member and shadow a client for 2+ hours. Interview the client at the end of the time period. Post your observations to your blog or journal. tell about the positive and negative aspects of what you observed at the sites.
  4. Increase your knowledge and do a web search on “Assistive Technology.” Annotate five (5) websites that proved useful. These could be sites that provided you with new insight, that you could use in your instruction with students in the classroom, or that you shared with parents or colleagues.
We hope we’ve accomplished our goal of raising awareness of assistive technology and how we all have abilities in different ways. Take your experience and apply it at your library and school and expose your students to this knowledge. Although we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg, we hope you had a great experience learning about disabilities and the world of assistive technology.