Sometimes a reluctance to engage with disabled people is through embarrassment rather than prejudice. A desire to not offend or say the wrong the thing, or of not being sure when, how or if to offer help, or which words to use can mean we avoid the situation altogether. Rendering the disabled person even more isolated. For that reason, I decided to write a series of blogs on “disability etiquette” so that employers and colleagues can feel confident in being around disabled people. There’s nothing worse than a genuinely inclusive employer hiring someone because they were the best person for the job, only for the team they will be working in to exclude that person through the fear of “getting it wrong”.
People are individuals
The most important point to emphasise, of course, is that each disabled person is different and unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. So it’s important to ask rather than make assumptions. People can usually sense intentions, so if you are genuinely trying to get it right, they won’t mind answering questions you may think are silly. Better that than the making the (wrong) assumption on their behalf. And of course it’s important to really listen to the answer you receive. I recently volunteered to take on an extra role at a charity I volunteer for. Despite the fact I had given much consideration around how I could fit this role into the rest of my life, the decision was made (by others) that “it would be too much for me”. A fellow volunteer had also put himself forward and been accepted with no question – but he is not disabled. I’m sure I’m the best qualified person to know what is or isn’t going to be too much for me! Making decisions on behalf of someone else without consulting them is not only extremely hurtful, it can be illegal (Equality Act 2010).
If a task comes up at work and you aren’t sure if the employee is able to carry it out, rather than agonising over what to do, just ask them. They are the best person to tell you what they are able to do, or suggest reasonable adjustments that might enable them to carry it out or to tell you that no, they are unable to carry out this particular task. If the relationship is one of genuinely trying to explore possibilities then people are unlikely to be offended by this. And many times you may be surprised at just how resourceful the employee is.
Disabled people are people too
Sometimes disabled people can be left out of the conversation altogether, even if it is about them. The typical “does he take sugar” scenario (see the wonderful “Crippen’s cartoon, above). It’s very easy to talk to the person pushing the wheelchair rather than the human being sat in it. This can particularly happen when, for example, the wheelchair-user has cerebral palsy which might cause unusual speech and sometimes dribbling (not a symptom that all people with cerebral palsy experience, but some do). The assumption can be that they will also have learning disabilities, whereas in many cases the person being ignored may well be more intelligent than the person ignoring them. I’ve seen people speaking to colleagues with cerebral palsy as ‘tho they were five years old, and then being visibly taken aback with the wisdom of the response.
My mother was recently taken to hospital with chest pains. She is also severely disabled with a separate condition. When the doctor finally got around to her cubicle I found it very difficult to encourage the doctor to direct her questions to my mother rather than me (I’m as disabled as my mother but don’t have speech difficulties). “Is she diabetic?”, “has she had these turns before?” and so on. Even my repeated “my mother can tell you more about that than I can” didn’t seem to make any difference.
I have known people “helpfully” place my crutches out of reach. Worse, I have seen people wheel my friend out of the way by pushing her and her wheelchair to one side. How would that person feel if someone physically picked them up and put them down in a different place? Just as outraged and violated, I suspect. Or people hang their coats on the back of someone else’s wheelchair. It’s important to respect why the person has the aid, and to respect it as such.
Linked with this point is the issue of guide or assistance dogs. These dogs tend to wear a jacket when they are “working” which is a way of telling others to leave them alone to get on with it. Calling, patting or feeding the dog isn’t fair to the dog or its owner. At the very least, ask if you can pet the dog first. I hear from friends with assistance dogs about people completely ignoring them (the person) and having a long ‘conversation’ with the dog. Not nice. And more ridiculous, shop workers who have tried to give the change to the guide dog …
I’ll return to disability ettiquette in future blogs, but in the meantime I’d love to hear from others about their experiences. If you are disabled, what behaviours are helpful for you? If you are non-disabled, what sutuations make you feel awkward?
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