Using the right words and responses towards people who have disabilities is important for showing proper etiquette and respect. However, sometimes our language and actions miss the mark without realizing it. Dog lovers may pet a service dog while it’s on duty, distracting the animal and putting the owner in jeopardy. Conversations intended for a person in a wheelchair may be directed to an accompanying attendant who is more at eye level than the wheelchair user. People may try to complete sentences for individuals with aphasia who may have some difficulty with speaking instead of giving them the time needed to talk.
“Etiquette for people with disabilities comes down to respect and treating people the way you want to be treated,” notes Julie Hensler-Cullen, RN, MSN, Director of Education, Quality and Advocacy at Moss Rehab. “With more than 56 million Americans having a disability, it’s important for people to understand how to interact together.”
Using the Right Words
Words used to identify people with disabilities are an important aspect of etiquette. People should not be categorized by their disabilities because it does not define them as a person. For example, people are not deaf or dumb, but rather a person who can’t hear or speak. Nor should society label a person as disabled, crippled, or handicapped. Rather, they are someone who has polio or MS.
“It’s important to identify the person first and then their characteristics,” explains Hensler-Cullen. “Instead of saying a handicapped or disabled person, it’s important to use first-person language, such as a person with a disability or someone who uses a wheelchair.”
MossRehab is working to eliminate the term “handicapped”, replacing it with “accessible” when referring to areas designated for those with disabilities. A recent initiative is the adoption of a dynamic accessibility icon by the local communities to identify restrooms, building entrances, parking spaces, and other areas. MossRehab adopted the new accessible icon in 2014 and lobbied the City of Philadelphia, Citizens Bank Park, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to use it in designating parking spaces and other accessible areas for people with disabilities.
“As a part of our accessibility plan at MossRehab, we’ve made architectural, environmental, and attitudinal improvements focused on the inclusion of people who have disabilities,” remarks Hensler-Cullen. “In the past several years, we’ve made all bathrooms on our Elkins Park campus wheelchair accessible.”
It’s Just Respect
Over the years, MossRehab also has presented disability etiquette training under the program It’s Just Respect to businesses, educational institutions, and associations to provide information and tips on communicating about and interacting with people who have disabilities. Developed using a grant from the Albert Einstein Society, the It’s Just Respect program combines input from MossRehab staff and people with different disabilities, their caregivers, and families. Some venues that received training include The Barnes Foundation, Wildwood Beach Patrol, Philadelphia Corporation of the Aging, the U.S. Mint, Parx Casino, the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, and Cigna Healthcare.
In recent years, the Capital Grille in Philadelphia reached out to MossRehab to educate employees on how to interact with individuals who have disabilities that represented a portion of their repeat business. When someone arrived using a wheelchair, employees did not know how to respond. MossRehab’s educated staff on best practices for this situation and how to be respectful to their needs. When Pope Francis visited the city in 2016, MossRehab met with the Philadelphia Public Relations Association to provide tips on appropriate practices for people who have disabilities who would be part of the crowd. MossRehab also regularly conducts training internally with staff in different departments to heighten awareness and explain how to be more respectful to patients with a range of disabilities.
“Back in the day, MossRehab presented a puppet show on disability etiquette to local schools and our campus to reach younger audiences,” says Hensler-Cullen. “More recently, we’ve worked with focus groups and tapped into resources from United Cerebral Palsy and the Amputee Coalition of America to ensure our future programs reflect the desires and needs of people with disabilities. Using this input, we created a series of Disability Etiquette Gone Wrong videos that reflects real-life experiences.”
Etiquette Gone Wrong
For example, one video dramatizes how people infringe on the personal space of a person using a wheelchair – leaning too close or placing a foot on the chair. It’s the same as if someone leaned on another person. The message is to be aware that a wheelchair is part of the personal space of the wheelchair user.
In another scenario, someone is talking with a person with visual impairment and abruptly leaves without notice. The person with the visual impairment doesn’t know the person has left and continues to converse with no one. The protocol is to be respectful and let someone who cannot see know when you leave.
“A person with a disability may do something differently or be slower in their communication or walking,” notes Hensler-Cullen. “While they are confident in their environment, people who aren’t using wheelchairs or an assistive device may rush to help when it is not wanted or needed. Never assume someone needs help; ask first and then help, as directed.”
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