5 tips for seeing the person and not the disability

Paul Story – Home@

Do you feel unsure about how to interact with people who have a disability?

If you haven’t spent much time around someone with a disability, you might feel unsure about how to best interact with them.

Ultimately, there is no ‘correct’ way to interact with people who have a disability. Like with anything, it comes down to the individual’s preferences.

Here, Zane McKenzie gives 5 tips to help you feel more confident in speaking to people with a disability. Zane is Scope’s Customer Engagement Manager.

Previously, he also worked as a community educator in our disability education team, presenting disability awareness training to organisations who want to make sure they are welcoming to to people with disability.

1. Relax and be yourself

People sometimes drastically change the way they would normally interact because they’re worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.

My greatest advice would just be who you are, take a leap of faith and start the conversation with a ‘hello’.

2. Speak at your usual pace, volume and tone

As human beings, we have a wide range of ways we communicate with others regardless of whether we have a disability or not.

When talking to someone with disability, you might feel tempted to adjust your language, pace, tone and volume.

Making assumptions about a person’s level of cognition, however, can potentially offend them.

Just speak to the person as you normally would. If you find your usual way of communication isn’t working, try to figure out alternative forms of communicating that work for both of you.

3. Ask first

If you think that a person needs help, always ask first. It is important not to assume that a person needs support.

Generally, people like to be as independent as possible, but occasionally may need help along the way. The individual will know what you can do, if anything, to support them.

If you offer support or assistance and the person says no, respect their answer. But don’t let that stop you from offering them or other people your support in the future.

4. Use ‘person-first’ language

Language has the ability to empower people, and make them feel included. On the other hand, language can also exclude and belittle, even when it’s unintentional.

When talking about people with a disability, its important to always refer to the person, rather than their disability first.

Here are a few examples:

Say ‘person with a disability’ rather than ‘disabled person’.

A person may be a wheelchair user, but they’re not ‘wheelchair-bound’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’.

A person may be hard of hearing or have a vision impairment or communication difficulty. But they are not ‘the blind guy,’ ‘the deaf lady’ or ‘the non-verbal bloke’.

A person who needs support with their meal does not ‘need feeding’, they may need meal assistance.

Note: Many people with disability also prefer ‘identity-first’ language, as their disability is a core part of their identity. For example, instead of saying ‘I have autism’, they might say ‘I am Autistic’.
As always, if you’re not sure – ask!

5. Respect personal space and property

Sometimes, when they interact with people who have a disability, people have a different sense of physical space. For example, they might unconsciously come closer than they usually would. I believe this comes from not knowing commonly accepted behaviours around people with a disability.

Avoid leaning on a person’s mobility aid or wheelchair, or attempting to drive their chair for them. Most wheelchair users see their wheelchair as a part of themselves, so it’s not appropriate to touch the wheelchair without permission.

The same applies to people with vision impairment who use a guide dog. Be aware that when you see a guide dog it is likely to be working, so patting or interacting with the dog will not be appreciated. This also applies for people who use communication devices. If in doubt, ask the owner!

Watch this space for Zane’s tips on better communication when speaking to people with disability.