How To Talk To A Disabled Person The Right Way

a daughter hugging her mother on wheelchair

The following is an excerpt from our Disability Marketing Guide. It is written in first person by Ryan Wilson.

I promise, persons with disabilities don’t bite. If I bite, I’m probably hungry, but my biting you is a rare occasion. There is, in just about any sense, a noticeable divide between those with disabilities and those without. I don’t see it as “disabled people vs non-disabled.” That’s not fair or reality. I just think there is a lot you don’t know or understand about us, and, naturally, us humans tend to steer clear of the unknown. We don’t like to look bad.

In order to open our lives up to the disability community, we need to be willing to make mistakes and own such mistakes. I am well aware that I have primarily spent my life with wheelchair users. I am willing to admit that I know more about life in a wheelchair than life as someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I want to help as many persons with disabilities as possible. So I tend now to gravitate toward situations that make me feel uncomfortable. For example, in college, I joined groups and attended webinars and classes on a range of topics, from mental illness, to trauma, to a global disability forum.

These courses, webinars, forums, etc., taught me how to empathize with people. I learned what vulnerability looks and feels like, and I learned, quite frankly, how to meet people where they are physically, emotionally, spiritually. I would like to give you a brief idea on how to do the same for persons with disabilities.

Scratch the “treat others how you want to be treated” motto

Honestly, I am sure you want to be treated differently than I. For example, you may like eating a whole plate of beans and lettuce for dinner. I do not. I would consider that gross. You may prefer loud concerts with flashing beams of light. A person with epilepsy would not. 

I try to treat people how they want to be treated. If a person wants quieter music, I can do that. It may be easier for them to talk and have a conversation with quieter music. If a person does, in fact, request an order of beans and lettuce, I can whip that up (perhaps with a frown). It’s a matter of acknowledging and recognizing the wants and needs of the other person, and respecting such wants and needs. 

Brene Brown, in her book, Atlas of the Heart, wrote, “We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes, and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.”

We all have preconceived notions about other people. Perhaps such notions come from the way they dress; how they talk; or the color of their hair. So our conversations with them may not be entirely nonjudgmental. Our brains are running haywire, judging the person for what they look like. 

Often, persons without disabilities tend to make quick assumptions about what persons with disabilities can and cannot do. Some people may assume my bones are as brittle as a potato chip, and that they can break at the touch of a finger. They may also assume I cannot hear properly, so they talk REALLY LOUDLY in my face. Such assumptions are inaccurate. My bones are stronger than you imagine; they just break on impact or when I hit something or vice versa. My hearing is fine; although, it might not be if that person keeps talking loudly. The only difference between my hearing and yours is likely elevation: You are probably taller than my 3-foot-8-inch stature.

We need to embrace, accept and respect when people look different than us. There have been many occasions in which kids have stared at my wheelchair in restaurants, grocery stores or parks. 

Personally, it does not bother me; kids are curious. They’ve probably never seen anyone maneuver a park, store or restaurant in a chair with wheels before. Honestly, if I was a kid without a disability, I would probably stare, too, trying to figure out what that thing is. If one of your kids is fixated on a prosthetic limb, let’s say, this might be an opportune time to educate them about the disability community. You don’t need to make them feel ashamed of or guilty about their curious nature.

At the same time, most persons with disabilities do not appreciate a person touching their medical device (wheelchair, walking stick, etc.) without you first asking for permission. I have let people sit in and drive my chair without hesitation. They did ask first.

In order to truly listen to understand others, you have to understand yourself first. That, if I may, is work only you can do.

Ask for clarification on misunderstandings

It can feel strange, uncomfortable or awkward asking someone to repeat themselves, particularly if they have a speech impediment. Imagine, though, how uncomfortable or awkward you and the person with the speech impediment may feel if there is a complete misunderstanding, and you were too shy to ask for clarification. Not all that long ago, Team Trust did a film to help fundraise money for a person with cerebral palsy (CP). The person with CP is a little hard to understand, and, initially, I did feel awkward asking her to repeat or rephrase what she was saying. I almost felt bad doing so.

But I had to ask. I was missing too much vital information for our project, and I needed to understand the project and the person with the disability. I did ask for clarification, and, honestly, my friend was glad I did. Actually, she appreciated it. If you do not understand what a person said or a question they asked, you can ask them to rephrase what they said. It won’t hurt their feelings.

If you encounter someone who speaks a little quieter or has speech difficulties, I would encourage you to ask for clarification when you don’t understand. The end result will be much better than any misunderstanding. Don’t assume the person will be offended.

Be patient

Sometimes, it takes a little extra time for a person with a disability to complete a task. It may take someone with Duchenne muscular dystrophy a few extra minutes to get dressed in the morning. They may not be able to use their arms, and instead rely on an assistant for help. It’s also wise not to rush a person with a speech impediment. They may not talk as quickly as you.

Speak naturally

Remember the anecdote of the individual speaking loudly in my face? That applies here, as well. When speaking with a person with a disability, just speak naturally. If they are hard of hearing and need you to talk louder, they will say so. Or, if a person is having a panic attack, you can evaluate whether speaking softly is appropriate.

Put simply, you don’t need to treat anybody with a disability differently. All you have to do is respect our differences, and accommodate when needs arise. 

Identify yourself when approaching a blind person

As you can imagine, individuals who are blind may not be able to see 100 percent, or even 1 percent, of their surroundings. It is certainly appropriate to speak up when you are approaching them. If they appear lost — i.e. are walking in a dark room — you can certainly ask if they need help.

Talk directly to a person with a disability

There have been occasions when people will ask me questions, but will direct the question to my mom or dad. For example, we have been at a restaurant, and a waiter has looked at my dad and asked, “What does he want to order?” They, of course, are assuming my dad speaks for me.

When you are speaking with a person with a disability, it’s OK to look them in the eyes, like you would anyone else. We don’t bite. The same applies for greetings. You can reach out to shake our hands. Offering such a gesture is not problematic. If we aren’t able to shake your hand, we’ll say so.

When a deaf person has a sign language interpreter, it can be tempting for us to look at the interpreter; however, let’s try the opposite. When you are talking with a blind person, look at them when speaking. You are having a conversation with them, not the interpreter. 

Don’t assume a person with a disability needs help

There is a big gap in understanding between those with disabilities and those without. It’s OK to acknowledge what we don’t know. I don’t know many, many things. Be careful assuming you know what a person with a disability wants or needs. Often, people assume I need help opening doors, because of my wheelchair. I am not entirely sure why, but perhaps they assume, since I do not walk, I must have a hard time opening doors. 

I can open doors without any problems. If I, or anyone with a disability, needs help, we will let you know. You can always ask if we need your help.

Don’t treat a service dog on duty like it’s a regular dog

When a service dog is working, they are working. They are not a pet, and don’t need to be distracted by a cluster of people wanting to pet them. If you do, in fact, want to pet the dog, you can ask for permission. It may be OK; it may not. It just depends on the situation.

If you have any questions or comments about this guide, let us know.

Published by Ryan Wilson

CEO of Team Trust

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