Disability etiquette: basic points to live by

FORT MCPHERSON, Ga. -- This is the final article of the five-part series regarding working with employees who have disabilities.

As the baby boomer generation continues to age, the Social Security Administration estimates America will experience a 37 percent increase in the incidence of disability over the next 10 years. As this population continues to remain employed, this percentage will stress the significance of proper disability etiquette in the workplace.

"Fear of the unknown and lack of knowledge about how to act can lead to uneasiness when meeting a person who has a disability," explained Patricia E. Duncan, an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) specialist in the U.S. Army Garrison EEO Office.

When supervisors and co-workers use disability etiquette, employees with disabilities feel more comfortable and work more productively. Practicing disability etiquette is an easy and efficient way to make people with disabilities feel welcome.

Here are some basic points of etiquette provided by the EEO Office staff and the Job Accommoda-tion Network:
-Refer to the individual first, then to his or her disability - it is better to say "the person with a disability," rather than "the disabled person."
-Don't portray people with disabilities as overly courageous, brave, special or superhuman. This implies that it is unusual for people with disabilities to have talents or skills.
-Avoid asking personal questions about someone's disability. If you must ask, be sensitive and show respect. Do not probe if the person declines to discuss it.
-Do not automatically give assistance; ask first if the person wants help, and don't be offended if someone refuses your offer of assistance. It's his or her choice to be as independent as they can be.
-Refer to a person's disability only when necessary and appropriate.
-Don't use "normal" to describe people who don't have disabilities.
-Treat adults as adults. Don't patronize or talk down to people with disabilities.
-Do not make assumptions about what a person can or cannot do based on his or her disability. All people with disabilities are different and have a wide variety of skills and personalities.
Individuals with mobility impairments
-People who use canes or crutches need their arms to balance themselves, so never grab them.
-Never touch a person's wheelchair, walker or cane; it is an extension of their body and is part of their personal space.
-When talking to a person in a wheelchair, grab a chair and sit at his or her level. If that's not possible, stand at a slight distance so he or she isn't straining his or her neck to make eye contact with you.
-Be careful about the language you use. For example, a person in a wheelchair "uses a wheelchair," they are not "wheelchair-bound" or "confined to a wheelchair." A wheelchair liberates, it does not confine.
Individuals with vision impairments
-If you meet someone who is blind, identify yourself. If you have met him or her before, remind them of the context; he or she will not have the visual clues to jog his or her memory.
-Do not just walk away when talking with a person who is blind or visually impaired.
-Offer your arm instead of taking the arm of a person who is blind or visually impaired.
-When walking next to someone who is using a guide dog, walk on the opposite side of the animal.
-Do not pet or distract a guide dog. The dog is responsible for the person's well-being and safety. Noises may distract the animal from doing its job. Feeding the service animal may disrupt the animal's schedule.
-When having a conversation with a person with a disability, talk to that person directly, not to the person's aid, friend or interpreter.
Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing
-Be aware that individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing communicate in various ways. Pay attention to cues, such as whether the person uses sign language, is reading lips or is writing or gesturing.
-Get the attention of a person who is deaf or hard of hearing before you start speaking. Wave your hand or tap the person's shoulder.
-Do not put your hands in front of your face or food or other items in your mouth when communicating with someone who is reading lips. Also, do not turn your head or walk away while talking.
-Speak using a normal tone of voice, unless the person who is deaf or hard of hearing asks you to raise your voice, and rephrase rather than repeat the same words if you are not understood.
Individuals with speech impairments
-Be attentive in your mannerisms by maintaining conversational eye contact and focusing on the content of the communication, rather than the delivery of the communication.
-If a person's speech is hard to understand, ask the person to repeat or rephrase what they are saying. Do not pretend to understand if you don't.
-Do not complete the individual's words or sentences.
-Be considerate of the extra time it might take for the individual to say something.

Not all disabilities are apparent. A person may have a hidden disability, such as low vision, a hearing or learning disability, traumatic brain injury, mental retardation or mental illness. Because of this, it is important not to make assumptions about a person or their disability.

If a person acts unusual or seems different, be yourself. Do not assume that someone who has a cognitive impairment, such as a learning disability, is of below-average intelligence. The individual might have above-average intelligence, but may have a difficulty receiving, expressing or processing information.

"Disability etiquette exists to draw attention to common assumptions and misconceptions," Duncan said. "Individuals with disabilities are just people like you and me, and just like you and me, they want to be treated with common courtesy."

With a reported 54 million Americans currently with disabilities, according to the National Organization on Disability, having a common knowledge of disability etiquette can help prevent uncomfortable situations. You shouldn't feel awkward around people with disabilities, just as you shouldn't make people with disabilities feel awkward around you. Remember that a disability is just one aspect of a person, not a definition of who he or she is.

Page last updated Thu October 30th, 2008 at 15:57