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Disability & Etiquette


Disability & Etiquette

Surrender Australia

Some people feel they don’t know how to relate to people with disabilities. Breaking it down to its uncomplicated form; relate to them as you would any other.

Greet people with disabilities as you would anyone else. Speak normally. Some people talk to me in a loud, slow voice, but I can hear just fine! If you wouldn’t usually be physically affectionate towards someone you’ve just met, or call them a pet nam, then don’t. You can offer a handshake, though some may not be able to do so. Don’t offer an adult what you would a child. Being commended on ordinary tasks, like reaching to grab something, is not cool. I’m not encouraged by people expressing surprise that I think, talk and act in ways that everyone else does.

If you want to know something about a person with a disability, or what they would like, ask them…not those who are with them. Don’t speak for them. Commenting to others about them within earshot is not cool!

If you haven’t understood what someone has said, don’t pretend that you have. It’s likely to be obvious to them that you haven’t understood. I prefer that people ask me to repeat myself, even if it’s several times. I can usually find a way to get my message across. When people ask me to repeat myself, it communicates to me that they care about what I have to say. Don’t finish people’s sentences for them. When I’m sitting down I appreciate people sitting or kneeling to talk to me at eye-level. Give people time to reply. If you’re talking in a group, watch that someone with a disability isn’t being cut off when they’re trying to speak.

When talking to someone who has difficulty hearing, make sure they can clearly see your face. Make sure you’re not standing with your back to the light – the listener will not be able to see your face clearly. A person with a hearing impairment may use visual cues to track the conversation.

Tell a person with a vision impairment who you are. Let them take your arm; don’t push or pull them. Guide them to the back of the chair where they’ll be sitting. Let them know when you are leaving.

Offer help, then respond accordingly. Don’t assume your help is needed or would be appreciated. Give people time to do what they want to do for themselves. I know myself better than anyone else does, hence I’m the most qualified to make decisions regarding myself. Don’t make assumptions. Some disabilities are hidden. Every task, and social activity is different. Some people lack energy, hence they must choose what they do and don’t do.

A person’s wheelchair, walking frame or other equipment is their property. Don’t touch, move, or lean on it, unless you have permission to do so. If I’m in my wheelchair, and someone is tapping it, or moving it back and forth, I’m probably annoyed! Go with a person around the long way, instead of taking the steps.

The correct use of language is to speak of the person before the disability. To say ‘people with disabilities’ rather than ‘disabled people’. To say ‘a person with schizophrenia’, rather than a ‘schizophrenic’, or a person with a vision impairment, rather than ‘a blind person’ My disability is not the first thing about me. It’s one part of my life. I have many abilities, so I certainly don’t feel ‘disabled’. To me, the cause of my disability is an irrelevant topic of conversation. I’m not constantly thinking about my disability…I often forget it’s there. I don’t need a comforting or positive word when I’m not sad! I will not appreciate prayer for healing, because God’s amazing plan for my life is being carried out. People with disabilities are interested in talking about the same things as everyone else.

If you’re talking to a person who has an intellectual disability, talk normally. Don’t speak slower or louder. Don’t begin by using simpler words. If you’re not sure they’ve understood you, ask them. If they haven’t, then start using simpler words. If you haven’t understood them, don’t pretend that you have…just be honest.

Relate to people with dignity and respect. These principles are just that…principles…guidelines. Each person is unique. Don’t be too caught up in etiquette. Be caught up in relationships…the interactions between spirits.

Stevie Wills is a performance poet, public speaker and writer. She works as a Community Education Officer for CBM Australia, advocating for people with disabilities living in developing countries, through her speaking and writing. With CBM’s Luke14 initiative, Stevie advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities within churches. Stevie traveled to South Africa and Zambia with CBM in 2011. She has a Diploma in Counselling Studies. 

She will be performing at SURRENDER 16.