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Disability Awareness Etiquette

A group of children link hands

The purpose of etiquette is to make society a more polite and pleasant place for everyone. According to Pew Research, “there are about 42.5 million Americans with disabilities, making up 13% of the civilian noninstitutionalized population …” This means it is especially important to consider those with disabilities when talking about social graces.

My friend Brooke Garcia, who has a professional background as a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, was kind enough to provide advice on ways we can expand our etiquette practices to encompass individuals with special needs.

Remember the individual

When interacting with someone with a disability, it’s common to be unsure of how to conduct yourself.

“I see a lot of people get nervous, anxious, or shut down when they are not comfortable having a conversation with someone with special needs,” Brooke said. “I think they fear that they will say the wrong thing, or don't know what to say at all or have a misconception about the individual or the disability itself.”

Being worried about saying the wrong thing is normal, but also not something we should let hold us back. Think of how many conversations you would avoid in everyday life if you let the possibility of a mistake stop you from interacting—you’d never speak! This situation is no different, and connection should be the primary goal. Don’t overthink it.

Brooke encourages eye contact and remembering the person behind the disability.

“First and foremost, remember you are speaking to an individual, a person who has a mind, heart, and body,” Brooke said. “So, there is no reason to treat them any different than another human being. You treat them with love, respect, and dignity.”

Don’t make assumptions

An easy mistake to make when interacting with someone with special needs is assuming they are more disabled than they actually are. And while helping others often comes with good intentions, we must be mindful not to belittle others by assuming they aren’t capable.

For example, behaviors to avoid include talking to an adult individual with Down Syndrome in a baby voice, or assuming someone in a wheelchair needs assistance with certain tasks, as they may live independently without outside support.

“Don't assume they can't do something. Ask first if they need assistance, and then ask how or what kind of assistance they would like,” Brooke advises. “If a child is having a meltdown in the store, don't give the parent a look that says ‘control your child’ or explicitly say those words out loud. That child might have autism and be overstimulated and is trying to communicate that.”

Instead, Brooke suggests asking the parent if they need any help or giving them a word of encouragement.

The key takeaway

As The Golden Rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We’re all human and deserving of love and respect, making disability awareness etiquette crucial to a kind and compassionate culture.

What other tips or takeaways do you have? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

XO, Susan


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