As someone who is living with lifechanging neurological disabilities, brought on by progressive multifocal leukoencephalitis, I know what it is like to speak to people who see my disability as a barrier, or who react awkwardly when the topic is brought up. It is as frustrating now as it was 10 years ago, when I was first diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. Saying this, there is an argument that, with a little guidance, people would feel completely comfortable talking to a disabled person – they just worry about doing or saying something wrong.
Indeed, according to Scope, 67 per cent of people in the UK say they feel uncomfortable when they are talking to a disabled person, and 21 per cent of people aged 18–34 have avoided talking to a disabled person in the past, because they didn’t feel as though they would know how to communicate with them. I think that having access to appropriate disability etiquette guidelines could make people feel more confident about talking to a disabled person, and help them realise that it is a good thing to be open about disability.
General disability etiquette
Everybody is different (and every disability is different), so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to disability etiquette. However, here are some general guidelines that may help individuals feel more comfortable and confident when talking to someone with a disability.
- Speak to a person directly: Just because a person has a physical or mental disability, this does not mean you cannot talk to them directly. Sure, it is great to make minor adjustments that might aid your communication (e.g. pronouncing each word clearly when talking to someone that lip-reads), but avoiding them completely, or relying on a colleague to relay a message to them, can be hugely isolating for that person.
- Do not be afraid to ask questions: People are often afraid to address the fact that someone has a disability, but this is a huge barrier to communication. It is perfectly acceptable to ask someone to repeat a point that they have made, if you did not hear it the first time, for example, or ask them discreetly if they need assistance with a particular task (such as walking up the stairs or putting a coat on). As long as you are respectful, and do not make assumptions about a person’s needs, this is not offensive – in fact, it is a great indication that you are invested in the relationship.
- Find the person’s eye level: There is nothing rude about pulling out a chair to sit on when you are speaking to someone who uses a wheelchair. It shows respect for that person, making it easy for them to join in the conversation. Just don’t lean on the wheelchair: it’s an invasion of personal space. The same goes for people who use crutches. Awkwardly towering above someone is a sure-fire way to make them feel uncomfortable and excluded from the conversation.
Ultimately, good disability etiquette is all about being aware of a person’s needs, limitations and individual dislikes – and not being afraid to ask if there is anything you can help with.
Here at Luminate, we offer motivational speaking, training and coaching services in London, Surrey and the South East to help people change their thinking for the better. Contact Roland Chesters today to find out more.