Interacting with People with Disabilities

When encountering someone with a disability, many people feel awkward and uncomfortable. How do I talk to them? Should I offer to help? What if I say something embarrassing?

Here are a few suggestions that will help you and the person with a disability feel more comfortable.

1. First and foremost, a person with a disability is a person. They have the same variety of feelings, attitudes, and behaviors as persons without disabilities. Treat people with disabilities with the same dignity and respect as you treat those without disabilities.

2. If you are a faculty or staff member interacting with a student, remember that everything relating to their disability, even the fact they have one, is legally confidential. Therefore, do not discuss or mention anything about the student's disability where others can hear, even if you believe the student would not mind.

3. Not all disabilities can be seen. Don't assume that just because someone doesn't look disabled that they do not need accommodations.

4. If someone with a disability appears to need assistance, ask if you can help. If they say yes, then ask how and follow their directions. Don't be offended if your help is not needed.

5. Talk directly to a person with a disability, not to their interpreter, attendant, or other non-disabled people about them. Adults with disabilities are adults and should be treated as such.

6. A wheelchair is considered part of the user's personal space. Therefore, do not touch or lean on the wheelchair unless asked. Similarly, do not touch or move someone's crutches. If the crutches are in the way, ask the user to move them.

7. Introduce yourself when approaching a person who is blind. Do not touch them without warning, as this may startle them. If they need guidance, let them take your arm. When leaving, let the person know so they don't continue to talk to empty space.

8. Do not pet or distract a service animal. The owner's safety may be at risk if the animal is distracted.

9. It's fine to use phrases like "Have you seen Bob?" with a blind person, "Do you want to run to the mall with me?" with a person who uses a wheelchair or "Have you heard from Joe?" with a Deaf person. These common phrases in our language and will be understood. 

10. Do not ask questions about the disability unless it directly relates to a service or assistance you are providing. How they became disabled or even then exact nature of the disability is personal information which they may not wish to share.