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How Do Our Actions and Words Affect Those With Disabilities?

Attitudes to people with disabilities have improved significantly over the past two decades, legislation paying a large part in this shift. But while governments around the world seek to promote equality through laws, people with disabilities remain concerned that public perception is too slow in changing.

Lack of understanding seems to be at the root of the discomfort that members of the public feel when interacting with disabled people. According to a study conducted in the U.K.. many fear they will act inappropriately or say something wrong. This same study showed that both sides believed understanding and acceptance would improve through more daily interaction and an increased focus on public education.

In order for interaction to be effective and discomfort-free, members of the general public need to understand how their actions and words affect people with disabilities. In recent years, various organizations and support groups have produced guides and etiquette books to facilitate communication. Here are certain things to consider when in the presence of people with disabilities.

Interaction and Disabilities

People with disabilities want respect. They do their best to lead a full life and not be seen as different because of their condition. While recognizing that the public at large remains unsure how to act in their presence, people living with disabilities often feel that the behavior of those around them undermines their efforts to receive equal treatment.

Quite often, the tension can be defused by inquiring about the person’s disability. Most people with disabilities are OK answering a couple of questions: this can help the other person relax and also guide their behavior. However, turning this exchange into an interrogation is unwelcome.

Most non-disabled people also tend to think they should rush to help. However, people with disabilities strive to be as independent as possible, and the automatic assumption that they need help is mistaken. Moreover, assistance may involve physical contact and create unforeseen problems. It’s best to inquire first and if help is welcome, ask about the best way to provide it.

What applies in normal circumstances also holds true when interacting with people with disabilities. People living with special needs do not like constant stares or treated with condescension. They want their personal space respected and, above all, they want their respect and individuality.

Verbal Communication

The awkwardness many feel around people with disabilities often shows in conversation. Patronizing language, talking louder, avoiding eye contact, and addressing companions are some of the things people with disabilities find objectionable.

Society is growing increasingly aware that the language used in communication with people with disabilities can promote respect and appreciation. This has led to re-thinking some vocabulary choices and an emphasis on the so-called people-first language.

Integration and Support

In the developed world, one of the major problems for society is integrating people with disabilities. Although, attitudes differ considerably, discrimination is far from eradicated.

In poor countries, the stigma of having a disability can make matters worse by the lack of access to medical care and other social services. Some non-profit organizations have made it their mission to fund programs that cover medical bills, provide decent housing, or sponsor a child with some disability

Disabilities only become a problem when society starts viewing them as one. Education and communication are the keys to ensuring the equality that people with disabilities want. Raising public awareness requires a focus on socializing and inclusive services. Parents and educators play a critical role helping to shape attitudes from an early age. However, a permanent shift in attitudes will take a concerted effort involving also local communities, employers, public institutions, and governments.

Reader Question

If you’re a parent how to you teach your kids to interact with others who may have a disability?

About the author:

Jenny is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about finance, health, and wellness. She also enjoys reading and long walks on the beach. Thanks so much for sharing your insight on self-care.



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  • Ashley

    This is definitely something to think about. Luckily my child does not feel awkward around those with disabilities. I have friends who are amputees and my son at first asked them what their leg was now made of, and then never mentioned it again.

  • sprinklingthesavings

    Great post! My kids have grown up around different disabilities! It is so very important to teach them respect of others who might look a little different at a young age!

  • mylittlerobins

    When my daughter asks, “Why is that person in a wheelchair?” or something along the lines, I try to redirect her and say, “Why don’t you ask him?” It seemed like the right thing to do, but I’m glad to read that it’s okay!

  • Candy Mercado

    This is a good post and we’ve come across our littles being curious about a disabled person. We do our best to explain that they are everyday, normal people. I personally wouldn’t ask a disabled person right off the bat why they are disabled. I am more interested in general non-specific conversation when I first meet people. Like a hey, hello, how’s it going type deal.

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