Monday, 20 June 2011

10 Simple Disability Sensitivity Tips

Last week, in my post on invisible disabilities, I started to touch on disability sensitivity. I'd like to talk about it some more today.

We're Not All Good Teachers

When my sister and I were old enough, my father took it upon himself to teach us both how to drive our family’s standard- transmission pick-up truck. I, the eldest sibling, was the first student.

I came back from our first session crying. My sister, a little more “take no prisoners” at that time in her life than I was, drove back to the house, dropped Dad off, and told him she’d learn by herself on our back road.

My father was well-meaning, but had been driving vehicles with a standard transmission since he’d gotten his license. He couldn’t understand why the process didn’t feel as intuitive to us as it did to him. I couldn’t get the timing right and kept stalling the car; Rachel kept making the truck “bunny-hop”; he knew what he wanted us to do, but it was so second-nature to him that he couldn’t explain it, and just got frustrated with the whole teaching experience in general.

I wonder sometimes if people who feel somewhat lost about how to act around people with disabilities feel like my sister and I did. Workers in the disabilities field get so used to talking and thinking in a certain way about what we do (in part due to current thought about disability sensitivity) that sometimes I think we struggle to remember exactly why we think that way, and struggle even harder to explain it to other people.

I’ve put together a list of ten disability sensitivity tips. Practicing them is now “second nature” to me (partly because I can now speak from “both sides of the fence” now), and I've tried to clearly explain why, to me at least, doing so is so important. We’ll cover five of them today.

Disability Sensitivity Tip #1: Keep Language Positive

Over the years, I’ve become the first to argue that negative words damage us only as much as they let them. But a society that’s made a commitment creating a culture where all people can feel included, particularly when some disabilities preclude people from understanding the terminology used about them and advocating for the use of different terminology if they choose, needs to be aware that words shape perceptions (whether we like it or not). In this blog, I’ve been using “people first” language as part of my practice of disability sensitivity; it doesn’t always flow as well, but it emphasizes that there’s more to the person than their disability. See this link for more information on people-first language:  Speaking this way feels a little unnatural at first, but soon becomes easier to do without thinking.

Advocacy groups are trying to reclaim some of these words, but it’s good advice to avoid them altogether: cripple, gimp, victim, retard/retarded, spastic/“spazz”. See the above link for a more complete list.

Disability Sensitivity Tip #2: Ask Before Touching Someone

At a barbecue, I went to get out of my lawnchair and commented that it was a bit of a deeper chair than I was used to. The next thing I knew, someone was trying to lift me out of the chair by my armpits. The sense of physical invasion made me furious, and ruined my evening. It’s not like I wasn’t used to getting assistance from people, but I was used to being asked whether I wanted it first, and I was used to my nurses telling me exactly what they were going to do before they did it.

I realize that this is an area that makes people especially uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable with it, back in my pre-stroke days. What *do* you do when it looks like someone need help? Do you risk offending him by giving it and implying that you don’t think that he's capable? Or do you risk offending her by not giving it when it turns out that she really does need it?

Simple answer: Ask, "Can I help you? Do you need some assistance?" Ask especially if you’re going to have to touch the person, because many people assume that it’s just okay to touch someone with a disability without asking. If you ask me if I need help and I say “Yes,” tell me exactly what you’re going to do.

(And if I don't thank you afterward for helping me, *then* you can slap me around a bit. I'm kidding. Don't ever do this. To anyone.)

For some disabilities, giving physical assistance without being trained can result in serious injury to you or the person you’re trying to help. Don't worry about disability sensitivity in these cases. If in doubt about whether you can assist safely or correctly…err on the side of caution and go find someone who can.

And if you ever ask someone if they need help and they’re rude to you…be satisfied with knowing that you a nice thing, and know that you’ve just come across a rude person. Even people with disabilities can be rude. Perhaps the person was just having a bad day, and it's too bad you got caught in the crossfire...but you did a good thing.

Disability Sensitivity Tip #3: Don’t Touch Other Peoples’ Mobility Aids

People are fascinated with canes, wheelchairs and walkers. They’ll sit on a friend’s walker, or lean on their chair, or pick up a cane and just start playing with it. That sort of thing doesn’t bother some people. It didn’t bother me when I was in my wheelchair (but I didn’t really like my wheelchair.) But pick up my cane and start playing with it without asking my permission – that really bothers me.

I used to think that I was just quirky about this, until I read some books about disability sensitivity and etiquette that said that it really is a social faux pas to touch, lean on, or play with someone else’s mobility aid. These are the things that help us get around in the world – they’re often fitted specifically for us, and they’re very personal. When I’m out walking with my cane, it feels like an extension of my arm, so much so that I barely notice it.

If you’re tired and want to lean on someone’s wheelchair (or sit in it, if they’re not), or you’re curious about their cane or walker and want to look at it: ask them if it’s okay before you do it.. They may not be comfortable with people touching something so personal without their permission.

Disability Sensitivity Tip #4: Talk *to* the Person, Not Around Them

There are few things more annoying than having people ask a question about you that you can answer to the person standing next you. And yet, it often happens to people with intellectual disabilities. I get routinely asked when I’m out in restaurants with people I support, “And what would he like?” I make a big deal of asking the person I’m with, “What did you decide to have?”, just to get a point across: He knows what he wants. Ask *him*.

My friend Martin experiences this as well. He had a stroke after a car accident, can’t speak very well and is in a wheelchair. He’s “all there” – he understands everything that’s said around him, and he can answer. But people don’t give him the chance to. His physical disabilities cause people to assume that he doesn’t understand what’s being said to him. They talk about him, to whomever’s with him – “How’s Martin today? And what does Martin want to eat?” – and barely look at Martin.

Even if you don’t think that a person with disabilities is going to understand, address questions about her to her. Speaking directly to the person isn’t just the polite thing to do, but it’s the best way to communicate with someone with a hearing impairment (and who knows? That may also be an issue for her.) If there’s a person with her and she doesn’t understand the meaning of your words, the other person will step in if assistance is needed. If there isn’t someone there and she appears confused, ask her if she understood, and repeat your question. If you can’t understand her response, tell her that you didn’t understand and politely ask them to repeat her question. If you really can’t open a line of communication, ask her if it would be okay if you got someone to help you to understand what she needs. Practicing disability sensitivity in this way goes a long way toward making people feel acknowledged and like people value what they have to say.

It’s really all about polite treatment, which is what you’d give any person. Why should a person with disabilities be any different?

Disability Sensitivity Tip #5: Observe Proper Etiquette Around Service Animals

“Service animals” are not just guide dogs for people with visual impairments anymore. Dogs are being trained to assist people with physical disabilities to live independently, to support people who have severe panic attacks, and to even help keep people safe when they have seizures or blood sugar disturbances. They undergo special training through agencies and again when they are matched with owners, so that owner and dog function as a close team. The dogs are working when they are out in public and can’t be disturbed.
Unless you have its owner’s permission, NEVER:
• Pet a service animal
• Feed a service animal
• Allow your own animal to get too close to a service animal
• Otherwise distract a service animal while it’s working.

Disability sensitivity is easy to learn and important to practice. We'll continue to talk about it later this week.

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