Although you may have the best intentions, acts of kindness without knowledge may become cause of embarrassment or even do harm to the very person you are trying to help.
There are rules of etiquette extended to the handicapped. Foremost, don’t stare! Doing so focuses on their disability, not the person. Also very important, when talking with the disabled; speak directly to them, not their companion or sign language interpreter.
When engaged in conversation with someone in a wheelchair, place yourself with them at eye level. This will make conversations much easier. Those who have mastered the art of getting in and out of a wheelchair, mastered the use of crutches, braces or who manipulate a mechanical limb, may be very proud of themselves and their accomplishment. Therefore, offering assistance to someone in a wheelchair to navigating a steep curb or offering an arm to someone with a cane while crossing a busy street is definitely in order. But before you take hold of the wheelchair, or grab their arm, ask politely if and how you may be of assistance. Then, listen and wait for instructions.
One of the most difficult aspects of losing the use of a right hand is the handshake. Shaking hands is common socially and in business. If someone has limited use of their hands, or they are fitted with an artificial hand, then allow them to extend their hand first. They may also extend a left hand which is perfectly acceptable. Resist asking questions about the cause of their disability. If they want to talk about it they will. But allow them to bring up the topic.
There are degrees of blindness; complete, partial, or loss of vision in one eye. There are many programs to re-educate the blind on how to function productively in society.
If you encounter a blind person at a crosswalk or street corner, you are perfectly correct in asking if you may be of assistance. If they want help, offer it, then allow them to take your arm. If asked directions, be sure to describe “left and right” from the blind person’s viewpoint and the direction they are facing.
When in a restaurant with someone who is visually challenged, you may read them the menu — but again, ask, “May I read you the menu?” Also, read out the price of the meals. It is helpful to tell them where everything is located on the table. Remember, a blind person’s other faculties are not impaired. In fact, they may be highly developed, so treat them like anyone else at your table.
When you invite a blind person into your home, remember, your voice is their vision. Lead them to a chair and let them know where they are, describing quietly the layout of the furniture. Don’t eliminate something because you think it is not important. Be precise and thorough, as if you are describing a person, place or thing.
Don’t leave a blind person in the room alone — if you must leave the room, have someone present for them to talk with. When you enter a room where there is a person who is blind, make yourself known. Introduce yourself by name. Make reference to people by name, not by “they” or “that” or “you.”
Feel comfortable using conversation, referring to vision -oriented words like colors, look, see or shapes. These are perfectly acceptable. If they are about to bump into something, be calm, clear and firm “Wait, there is ___ in front of you.”
When leaving the room, let them know you are leaving. If they have a “seeing-eye” dog, do not play with or distract the dog. This is a working dog specifically trained to help the blind. The safety and wellbeing of your blind guest is in the hands of the dog.
There are degrees of deafness: partial, complete, or one may hear from only one ear. If someone is unable to hear from one side, make sure you are on the side from which they can hear when speaking with them. If someone has complete loss of hearing, the only means of communication is visual. If you know sign language, wonderful! However, if you don’t and the person can lip-read, speak distinctly and slowly, and remember not to turn your head away. If you require their attention, a gentle tap on the arm or shoulder will do.
Be patient and make sure what is being said is understood. If needed, repeat until it is understood. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Don’t raise your voice or shout, nor exclude someone who is hard of hearing from your conversation. Listen attentively when you speak with someone who has difficulty speaking — be courteous and patient. Wait for them to finish. Don’t correct or speak for them.
Life is challenging. No one is free from obstacles. The disabled have learned to adapt, and this is not easy. Each person and their disabilities are uniquely different. A person with a disability should never be considered far behind the standards of what we call “normal.” This is a mistake in thinking.
Courtesy, respect, understanding and cooperation are indispensible.
- Zeda Dowell of Ben Lomond answers questions, teaches classes and provides information about international protocol, dining, being a gentleman and cultural diversity. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.