Millions of people have disabilities. And just like individuals, disabilities come in different forms, with different stories and circumstances. Yet, while people without hearing or sight have made great strides adapting to the world around them and have normal lives, people without disabilities often still find themselves struggling with how to interact with them. And guess what, there are manners to help you navigate social interaction with people who have disabilities without awkwardness or insult.
Manners' underlying premise—respect for others—are as crucial here as in any situation, maybe even more so. It’s important to approach everyone as individuals, some of whom happen to have disabilities. They don’t define themselves by their unique circumstances and neither should you; nor should you ignore them. The proper approach is to acknowledge them as people who have certain disabilities. Children, in particular, will be curious and more likely to say something about a disability. In such cases, it’s important to realize curiosity is not offensive or disrespectful. Interaction with people different from them is the best way to raise children with an appreciation and respect for those different from them. Of course, if your child says something rude, remove them from the situation, apologize to those offended, and explain to the child how they should have behaved. Discussing disabilities with children ahead of time, including the proper terminology, is a good way to help prevent awkward situations.
Rules for Different Types of Disabilities
Rules for disabilities vary, but the best way to handle uncertainty is the same as you would any other situation: ask. The best source for the answer is the person with the disability themselves. There is nothing wrong with asking a genuine question as long as you do so with respect and sensitivity.
When interacting with the visually impaired
- Introduce yourself. It’s not just polite, it also let’s the person know you’re there.
- Likewise, announce when you leave the room as well. This avoids embarrassment of conversations continued when only one person is around.
- Speak in a calm voice, even when alerting them to a potentially dangerous situation (e.g. a trip hazard, a closed door, etc.)
- Offer your elbow when walking with someone who is visually impaired.
- Be specific when giving instructions.
Proper terminology: “Visually impaired” or “blind.”
When interacting with the hearing impaired:
- Face the hearing impaired person when you speak.
- If the person doesn’t hear you, lightly tap their shoulder.
- Hand gestures are useful for conversation, but make sure not to block your face.
- Speak slowly enough so that person can see your lips move, but not so slow that you imply they can’t grasp what you’re saying..
- Be ready to repeat something, and if they have some degree of hearing, use different words that may be easier to hear.
- When possible, use pen and paper to write out what you’re saying..
- Don't yell.
- If an interpreter is present, still keep your focus on the person with the impairment.
Proper terminology: “Hearing impaired” or “deaf.”
When interacting with people who have mobility problems (e.g. wheelchairs, crutches, etc.)
- Greet the person normally. This includes shaking hands, smiling, and saying, “Hello.”
- When shaking hands, accept the hand that is offered.
- Avoid moving the person’s devices. If the person’s crutches or walker are in your way, reposition yourself instead.
- Respect personal space at all times. Never assume a good intention such as pushing a person’s wheelchair for them will be received as such. Always ask permission.
- Make eye contact at their level. For a person in a wheelchair, find a chair for yourself as well.
When interacting with service animals
First and foremost, remember that service animals are not pets. They are trained to assist people with a variety of disabilities, including vision impairment, hearing loss, and mobility impairment. Resist the urge to reach out and pet a service animal. It is especially important to teach this restraint to your children as well.
Proper manners around service animals:
- Don’t pet the animal without asking.
- Don’t offer the animal a treat.
- Avoid calling out the animal’s name.
- Never distract the animal when he is doing a task for his master.