Disability etiquette matters, because how we treat other people matters.
Growing up, almost everyone learns the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would do have them do unto you.”
Yet, once we become adults, remembering to treat others with the same respect you’d wish for yourself often gets tainted by our situations, our time or our other distractions. As a result, we can fail to recognize how we end up treating people — even if we think we’re being kind and accepting.
Further, because many people with disabilities aren’t employed or may not pursue “typical” social engagement, they become an often silent population in America, overlooked by mainstream society. Yet, ironically, they are the largest minority demographic in America, comprising all religions, ethnicities, education levels, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders and ages. And anyone, at any point in their life, can become a member of this community.
By educating yourself about disability etiquette — and why it matters to everyone — you’ll help become part of the solution to improving equality and justice for people with disabilities.
Simply put, Whaaat?! moments are acts of discrimination. As shown with other forms of discrimination (gender, sexual orientation, religion, race), Whaaat?! moments degrade and dehumanize people with disabilities. Whenever you discriminate against another person, you automatically put them in a lower class than you and exclude them from social discourse. You create inequality.
By following disability etiquette, you prevent Whaaat?! moments from happening. You promote polite, respectful behaviors instead of rudeness and disrespect. In this way, disability etiquette fosters equality and equity for people with disabilities.
How we treat people with disabilities should begin with the fundamental respect and care that all human beings deserve. Just because someone may have a disability that impacts them physically or cognitively doesn’t mean they deserve any less respectful treatment than a friend, a client, a co-worker, a family member or a stranger without a disability.
Yet, many well meaning people will overcompensate and treat someone with disabilities differently — such as insisting on pushing a capable individual in a wheelchair across the street even if they express that they don’t need any help. While we may think this behavior is helpful, treating that person as if they are incapable and ignoring their opinion is offensive.
To help you avoid creating these type of Whaaat?! moments, start by being aware of the following disability etiquette:
When you treat others with the respect you’d desire in return, it’s hard to go wrong. Each individual with a disability is a daughter, son, mother, father, niece, uncle or friend — just like you. They have interests, passions, ideas and desires — just like you. Their disability doesn’t make them any less human or more different. As such, they deserve the same respect as you.
See the Person — Not the Disability
Who a person is defines them as an individual — not their disability. Start by making sure that you change your perspective and stop seeing their disability first and their humanity second. See them first as the living, thinking, breathing individual that they are, just like anyone else you’d meet at work, at school, at church or elsewhere in your community.
Overall, making assumptions is a path to misunderstandings, confusion and miscommunication. Don’t assume a person with a disability isn’t capable of performing an action, sharing an opinion or even listening! Jumping to conclusions without solid facts to back your perspectives can easily create the Whaaat?! moments we’re working to prevent. So, never assume that you know what’s going on for and with another individual without gaining first-hand knowledge from that person.
Pause for a second and turn a stereotype on yourself. Whatever your gender, race or age, a stereotype about “people like you” probably exists that you don’t relate to. Now ask yourself, “How would I feel if someone judged me based solely on this stereotype?” You’d probably feel frustrated, disrespected and even downright angry. The same is true for a person with a disability.
Believing stereotypes such as, anyone with a speech impediment has a cognitive impairment, only further supports the stereotypes — rather than supporting the individual. Have people with disabilities share with you what they’re capable of or not, and base your interactions on these informed perspectives.
The words we use every day define our thoughts and our actions. People-first language is about using language to define the person — not the person’s disability. You emphasize the individual first, not what they do or how they act because of their disability.
Wikipedia states, “People-first language is a type of linguistic prescription in English, aiming to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanization when discussing people with disabilities.”
Think about this for a second: Someone who develops cancer isn’t labeled a “cancerous person.” They are a person living with cancer. They are a person first, who happens to be living with an illness.
The same thinking applies to people with disabilities. They are a person first, who happens to be living with a disability. They should never be called “disabled people.” And we should never talk down to them.
Someone bound to a wheelchair due to paralysis isn’t “handicapped.” They are an individual who uses a wheelchair.
Someone with Down Syndrome isn’t “retarded.” They are an individual with a medical diagnosis.
Some other people-first language details to consider includes not using language that:
Evokes pity such as, “I have a disabled daughter who has problems walking, and it’s so hard on her.”
Implies being a victim of their disability such as, “She fights every day to improve her condition.”
States that their disability makes them different such as, “She has more special needs than my son.”
Expresses their disability as a problem such as, “We were forced to get a van, because she couldn’t get into the car.”
When you remember to emphasize the person over the disability — and recognize who they are as an individual — you honor them as a human, just the same as you’d expect someone do unto you.
People-first language is about using language to define the person — not the person’s disability. You emphasize the individual first, not what they do or how they act because of their disability.