Following on from the previous blog in this Disability Etiquette series – Ten things NOT to say to disabled people - I didn’t want to leave people feeling completely disempowered, so here are some ideas which make it easier to be helpful rather than irritating! I hope these help you to help us more effectively.
1. Each disabled person is the world’s best expert in what we personally find particularly helpful. Rather than making assumptions, ask us what you could do that would be helpful, especially if you can see we are struggling (this is exceptionally important for people with mental health conditions). And if we suggest something, do that something – but just that – our request to do a specific helpful thing doesn’t give you licence to do everything else for us as well. If we need further help, we will ask. This hint goes for language as well. If you are not sure what are appropriate words, ask – much better than to guess wrong.
2. Treat each disabled person as a regular person. We may have a disability or two (or three) but we are also men, women, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, parents, employers, employees, stamp collecters, football fans, cooks or any number of other facets of our personality (see cartoon above!). Whatever our disabilities, we are people first. This is equally important for people with physical or sensory disabilities as well as those with learning disabilities or mental health issues.
3. If you aren’t sure if a disabled person can join in a social activity, invite us anyway. If we are unable to join in on that occasion, we will tell you, but still be pleased you asked. And ask us the next time, when we may be able to attend. Sometimes the fear of “putting your foot in it” can mean disabled people never get invited anywhere which can be extremely isolating and hurtful.
4. Challenge your own stereotypes. We all have them, including disabled people. But the particular stereotypes around disabled people are that we are benefit scrounging cheats, poor objects of pity, or saints/heroes/inspirational people. Actually, the vast majority of us are just ordinary people getting on with our lives the best we can, the same as everyone else. Sometimes we will feel grumpy and fed up with our lot and other times we will feel cheerful and enjoy having a good time. You know – just like everyone else.
5. Remember that disabled people have a lot to offer. There can be an assumption that disabled people always need things from other people, and sometimes we do. But disabled people, like everyone else, also like to contribute, to be of value, to give as well as receive. In the workplace, think of the skills, experience, talents and qualities of disabled employees, and give us opportunities to use those skills.
6. Allow people with communication difficulties time to say what they want to say – don’t interrupt or finish their sentences for them. I know we have made this point elsewhere in this series, but it is well worth repeating.
7. Try to imagine how life might be in that disabled person’s position. You’ll never get it completely right of course, but it is important for disabled people to feel understood (as opposed to felt sorry for). Think of some of the things this person can no longer take for granted, and don’t be afraid to raise it – most people don’t mind talking about their disability so long as it is done in a spirit of genuinely trying to understand.
8. Don’t turn your back on a disabled person just because they have become disabled, or you feel awkward, or they can’t do the things they used to be able to do. Ask almost anyone who has acquired a disability as an adult and they will tell you that this really showed who their friends were. Some, unexpectedly, turned up trumps and were very thoughtful and sensitive and continud to include them in their lives. Others – even close friends since childhood – disappeared from view very quickly and ran for the hills.
9. Respect that some people might need a bit more time and/or space than others. If someone is using a wheelchair, or crutches, or a mobility scooter, don’t suddenly walk in front of them or barge past. Allow them the courtesy of the time and space they need to move around.
10. Lead by example. If you are going out for lunch with a friend, say, with Cerebral Palsy whose speech is a bit loud and who dribbles a lot, don’t let the restaurant shove you in an out of the way corner. Insist on being treated with respect. Similarly, if you hear people making fun of disabled people, even if “only” in joke form, challenge their perceptions – help them become more aware of the realities of life.
Having written this, I can immdiately think of another ten or twenty ways to be helpful, but I can save them for another blog. In the meantime, if you can think of other tips please share them here!
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