Etiquette when interacting with disabled people
by Peter Tan. Posted on May 24, 2014, Saturday
MY wife and I can only do our grocery shopping on weekends. We buy enough vegetables, fruits and other supplies for the following week. This is also the time when the shopping mall we frequent is packed with other weekend shoppers.
What I dread most about this weekly routine is waiting for the elevators. They are always full. Sometimes, we have to wait between 15 and 30 minutes for one that I can get into. There are no other ways for me to move from one floor to another except to use the elevator.
There was one time when after waiting for the longest time, the elevator doors opened to reveal that there was sufficient space only for my wheelchair. My wife decided to take the stairs in order not to waste any more time.
As I got in, someone grabbed the push handles of my wheelchair from behind and turned it against the direction I was manoeuvring.
“Please don’t push my wheelchair,” I told him.
“Don’t worry, I know how to handle a wheelchair,” he replied as he continued manoeuvring and almost ran the front wheel over the toes of the passenger beside me.
“Stop!” I said sternly but he ignored me.
Exasperated, I raised my voice to tell him off, “Don’t touch my wheelchair!”
It was only then he reluctantly released his grip and muttered, “I was only trying to help.”
Do not get me wrong. I am always grateful for people who are willing to help me. There have been situations when I required help going up a steep ramp or holding the door open and considerate people were kind to extend assistance to make it convenient for me.
However, it is not correct to assume that disabled people are always in need of assistance. Most times, we do not. When we decline a helping hand, please do not be offended and take it personally. In our determination to realise our participation in society, we try to be as independent as we possibly can in our activities.
The wheelchair is part of my personal space. It should be respected like how we respect the personal space of the people around us. We do not simply intrude and touch the people around us or insistently carry their handbag for them. Likewise, one should not grab or touch any part of the wheelchair for the same reason.
As for the unpleasant experience in the elevator, not only was it rude to forcefully push my wheelchair despite my requests not to, it was also dangerous and could have caused me to lose my balance and fall, or injure other passengers.
When intending to provide assistance to a wheelchair user or someone with mobility impairment, always ask: “Can I help you?” If the person needs it, the next question should be: “How can I help you?” The same goes for helping a blind person. Always ask if assistance is required and how it can be rendered. Do not assume.
Learning to communicate effectively is useful when interacting with disabled people and reduces the chance of misunderstandings. Here are some simple tips that could be useful.
For a conversation that is going to last more than a couple of minutes with a wheelchair user, it is better to do it at eye level by sitting down on a chair or kneeling on the floor. It is uncomfortable for us to have to look up for an extended period of time.
When speaking to a blind person, it is polite to introduce yourself first. In a group conversation, identify yourself before speaking. Address the blind person you are speaking to by name. Otherwise he may not know you are talking to him.
The majority of non-disabled people, and even disabled people, do not know sign language. That should not stop us from communicating with a deaf person. The easiest way, short of learning sign language, is by using pen and paper. There have been instances when my deaf friends and I communicated by typing out our conversations on the computer or smartphone.
Be patient when holding a conversation with a person with a speech impairment. Let the person finish speaking. Do not attempt to complete the sentence halfway. It is all right to ask the person to repeat if you did not get it the first time. It is also all right to use alternative communication methods if you still have difficulty understanding after repeating.
While disabled people are always open to a good conversation with new friends, let not the first question be “What happened to you?” It is an awkward question especially from someone we just got acquainted with. Would you like it if someone you just met asked you personal questions? Such subjects are best left to the time when you become better acquainted with us.
And most importantly, speak directly to the disabled person instead of the companion or assistant, or even when there is a need to communicate through an interpreter. Being disabled does not mean that we are not able to speak for ourselves.
These are just a few samples of disability etiquette. People with different impairments may require different interactions. This is still a learning process for me as I delve deeper into the various kinds of impairments.
All I can say is that it will get easier and the interaction more natural once you get to know disabled people better. You will realise that we are just like you and everyone else. It is through mutual understanding and respect that we can create a society that is more accepting of diversity and encourage inclusion.
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