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How to Talk to People With Disabilities

My dad has been a quadriplegic for the past 15 years, and he’s taught me a lifetime of lessons about determination and overcoming adversity in that time. One of the most important lessons is how to make others comfortable when you talk to people with disabilities.

It’s an unfortunate side effect of being a wheelchair user–people can get a little uncomfortable and self-conscious when talking to you. But over the years I’ve noticed that Dad always maintains eye contact, smiles and adds a little humor when he can. (When someone says “I’m going to head over to (fill in the blank),” he likes to reply with, “Okay…I think I’ll just sit right here.”) There is a lot of eye-rolling at these jokes in our immediate family, but it’s amazing how a laugh puts others at ease.

talk to people with disabilities BraunAbility
Our thanks to Richard May, President of United Access, for bringing the “Words With Dignity” pamphlet to our attention! (Click to Enlarge)

Of course, every once in a while someone will approach Dad and start to speak slowly and loudly like he may not understand everything he or she is saying. It takes a lot for Dad not to laugh (or worse, to start playing along). Usually after a minute or two, the person realizes Dad’s IQ is just as high as his or hers (probably a little higher), and normal conversation follows.

We’ve all probably been involved in or witnessed a similar situation at one time or another. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when you talk to people with disabilities:

  • Remember to keep people first. Refer to individuals as “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people.”
  • Do not assume that a person with one disability also has others.
  • Keep the language positive–say “a person who has Cerebral Palsy” instead of “a person who suffers from Cerebral Palsy” or “a victim of Cerebral Palsy.”
  • Maintain eye contact when speaking with a person with a disability.
  • And it should go without saying that the terms “crippled,” “lame,” and even “handicapped” really aren’t crowd-pleasers.

When it comes down to it, people with disabilities don’t really want to be categorized or labeled as “disabled’–they’re just people (like the rest of us) who have an additional set of problems to overcome.

It doesn’t always come automatically but with enough time people who might have been a little uncomfortable talking to Dad at first start to forget that he’s even in a wheelchair. Sooner or later they realize they’re just talking to Tim, a guy who happens to sit down–a lot.