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Etiquettes to Address People with Disabilities

Written By:
Syra Salam

Meeting and interacting with people who have some type of disability be it physical, intellectual or mental, is part of human life. But sometimes we might use terms or phrases that lack the dignity and respect that people with disabilities deserve. This is why it’s important to learn and teach the proper etiquette to address and communicate with people who have disabilities. Because most often we don’t intend to do so but our words can have a huge impact on people’s lives if we’re not careful.

Use Person-First Language

Person-first language refers to communicating with and about a person in a way that emphasizes the person before their disability. It’s a way to respectfully describe what disability a person has without making their disability their defining feature. For example instead of saying “autistic person” say “person with autism”, this implies that the individual is so much more than their disorder. Similarly, you should use phrases like “a person who…” or “person who has”, when talking about people with disabilities.

Some people might prefer identity-first language, so if you’re unsure of what they prefer, just ask! Preferring either type of language is equally valid and these preferences should be respected. 

Etiquettes to Address People with Disabilities

Speak Directly To the Person

It’s important to communicate respectfully. This includes speaking to the person directly. A person with a disability might have a companion or sign language interpreter with them. In such cases, you should address the person directly and not their companion. Doing so means that you recognize that they’re as human as any other person on the plant. Most importantly, never assume that a person is unable to communicate as this reinforces harmful stereotypes.

Make communicating easier

If a person is in a wheelchair make communication easier by grabbing a chair and sitting at eye level with them. Similarly, if you’re talking to a person who is hearing impaired and prefers to lip read. You should talk at a slow pace so that they’re able to understand you easily. Moreover, it’s important to give the person time to respond and if they don’t understand try to rephrase what you said.

People with autism, which is a developmental disorder, don’t usually understand or detect sarcasm. Therefore, try to be as straightforward as possible when talking to them so that they feel comfortable when interacting with you. Likewise, when talking to a person who has trouble speaking, listen patiently and don’t interrupt them. If you don’t understand something they’ve said, repeat what they said and let them correct you. 

Don’t Infantilize Adults with Disabilities

Adults with disabilities deserve to be treated as adults. Don’t make assumptions about them, don’t choose for them and definitely don’t treat them as a child. They are individuals who can make choices for themselves and should be treated as such. If you feel like something they’re doing might be difficult for them due to their disability, talk to them and present your concerns. Remember they know themselves best and you don’t get to tell them otherwise.

Ask Before Helping

Doing something for a person with a disability without them asking for your help in that matter can be seen as offensive. It shows that you don’t think they’re capable of doing things by themselves even if that wasn’t your intention. Remember, people with disabilities are perfectly capable of looking after themselves. They’re used to their way of life and your unsolicited help undermines their capabilities. Therefore, always ask if they need your help.

Etiquettes to Address People with Disabilities

Don’t Victimize People with Disabilities

Talking about a person’s disability as if it’s a great tragedy in their life is pretty insensitive, to say the least. Using terms like “victim of epilepsy” or “victim of cerebral palsy” can be incredibly discouraging to the individual. It implicates that the person is helpless and weak. Such language can make it seem that they’re incapable of overcoming their obstacles as it focuses on what happened to them rather than how much they’ve achieved since it happened.

A more appropriate word to use when referring to a person with disabilities is “survivor”. Don’t say phrases like “I’m so sorry this happened to use”. Language like this further victimizes the person and you fail to recognize their efforts and all the hard work they’ve put into being content with their life. 

Use the Correct Terminology

Stop saying words like “handicapped” and “crippled” when talking to or about people with disabilities. Using such outdated terms is not only offensive but can also cause harm to the person you’re referring to. Most of these outdated terms imply that people with disabilities are helpless which is a very harmful stereotype. Don’t say terms like “differently-abled”, “stricken”, “unfortunate” or “retarded”. You should instead use person-first language and use the correct terms for their disability.

Just using the word “disabled” is considered perfectly appropriate. It is also important to note that labelling people with disabilities as “superhumans” and “courageous” alienates them. It makes it seem like having talents and skills as a disabled person is an unusual thing. In addition, it also implies that you don’t see them as normal human beings which can be extremely hurtful. Lastly, if you feel like you’ve said or done something wrong make sure to apologize and learn from your mistakes.

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