I’m very much enjoying writing this series on “Disability Etiquette” and I hope you are finding it useful. Much of the areas covered so far have been fairly generic, looking at disability as a whole. But people with different impairments may require specific kinds of help. So the next few blogs in the series will look at people with specific impairments and hopefully help people feel more confident in including such people into their social or working environment.
Previous blogs in the series have covered:
- The basics
- Physical access
- Attitudinal barriers
- Communication tips
- Things not to say to disabled people
- Ways to be helpful to disabled people
Today we are going to look specifically at ways of including blind people or people with visual impairment, and deaf people or people with hearing impairment. Remember the golden rule – each disabled person is an individual, and your first action should be to communicate with them to find what they personally find helpful (or not).
People who are blind or visually impaired
First of all, never use the generic term “the blind” – they are people first! Most people with loss of vision are far more independent than we might imagine – whether blind from birth or having acquired sight loss later in life, they have learned to navigate their way around a world geared up for sighted people. The advice below will vary depending on the degree of sight loss, from no vision at all, to various other sight impairments.
When approaching a blind person, introduce yourself, and if you haven’t met before, let them know relevant information about who you are (for example, a receptionist at a doctor’s surgery). If the person is a new customer or new employee, offer to take them on a tour of the building and facilities so they can familiarise themselves with it. If they are a regular customer or employee, ensure they know if you have moved things around. Keep walkways clear of obstructions.
If a blind person requires assistance from you to move around, let them take your arm – don’t take theirs. If they have a guide dog, walk on the opposite side. When you reach your destination in may be helpful to put their hand on a banister or the back of a chair so they know where they are. As you are walking, describe any upcoming obstacles such as a step (“up” or “down”), a low roof, an overhanging plant or a wet floor, for example. Don’t just say “look out” because that doesn’t tell them whether to stop, duck, step up or step down! Offer to read written information if required.
For people with some vision, ensure written information is written in large print with a good colour contrast, preferably on a matt surface. Don’t use all upper case letters because that is harder to read. Consider using Braille where appropriate, although a surprisingly low number of blind people read Braille – make sure there is a need before spending money on it! Ensure the lighting is appropriate – bright enough to see properly without being too bright, and avoid shiny paper or walls.
People who are deaf or hearing impaired
Again every person is different, some people may have no hearing at all and others may have some degree of hearing. Some may use sign language, some may use hearing aids, some may have cochlear implants, some may lip read, some may use written communication. If in doubt, ask how you can be most helpful.
For complex interactions, such as a job interview, it may be necessary to use the services of a professional signer. If this is the case, maintain eye contact with the person you are communicating with, not the signer, and direct your comments to the person (e.g. “how can I help you?” rather than “ask her how I can help her”). For less complex interactions, it may be fine just to write down your comments or questions.
When communicating with someone who lip reads, make sure you have their attention before spekaing, and then speak in your normal tone, keeping your hands away from obscuring your face. Resist the temptation to shout – it distorts the way you speak making it harder to understsand and can come across as aggressive. Also if someone is wearing a hearing aid it will be callibrated to a normal speaking tone, so shouting will just distort the meaning.
If someone hasn’t heard or understood, rephrase the comment instead of just repeating the same sentence. Similarly, if you haven’t understood something they have said (sometimes speech can be affected by hearing loss), don’t pretend to have understood. Persevere until you really have understood.
I hope this helps you feel more confident around people with hearing or sight impairments, and never forget that each person will be different – find out (and remember) what works for them.
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