by Claire Theriot Mestepey
Whether you are interviewing a person with a disability for a job or meeting them for the first time at a party, here are some simple tips that will put you both at ease. It’s so important to remember that no matter what the disability is, whether blindness, deafness or wheelchair-users, they are people. Once you overcome preconceived notions about their outer appearance, it will pave the way to better communications, understanding, and acceptance.
When you first meet, always offer to shake hands. Most of us will offer the most controlled limb; it might even be a foot. For instance, because of my cerebral palsy, my left arm’s natural state is folded up, hand sitting on my shoulder. So if I had to extend my left arm to shake yours, it would take 13 minutes. But I can shake your right hand with little or no effort. Let the person with the disability take the lead, but do offer a friendly handshake. I think the first handshake sets the tone of how open one will be in the relationship. In other words, opened hand, opened heart.
Often people want to speak louder when they are addressing me. I am not deaf, but even if I was, how would shouting help us communicate better? Always try to talk in a normal tone. I do believe that disability etiquette is a two-way street and if the person with the disability would like you to speak louder they should just ask.
Most people are good Samaritans at heart; they like to help. As a woman with cerebral palsy I appreciate immensely when people offer assistance. Sometimes I accept with a nod and a thank you. Other times I don’t want help. I’m extremely independent and if I know the task is doable, however difficult it may seem, I like accomplishing it. On rare occasions overzealous Samaritans try to help, despite my pleas not to. I know people are just trying to help, but it borders on being disrespectful and can sometimes put the person with a disability on defense.
These are just three common disability etiquette tips. Upon reflection, these suggestions works for anyone, disabled or not. Many people want to learn disability etiquette, which is quite admirable. Taking the time to know someone, though, is more important than any etiquette training. Moving beyond stereotypes and learning each person’s limitations (because we all have them) and abilities are essential to understanding what an individual can offer your organization.
Have you ever felt unsure of what to do meeting someone with disabilities? How did you handle the situation?
Have you ever tried any of Ms. Mestepey's suggestions? Did it help? Do you have additional behaviors you find helpful?