Vancouver resident Judi Sorter is blind, but that doesn’t mean she can’t hear.
“One of the things that is very frustrating is when I am with a sighted person and a store clerk or waiter asks, ‘What does she want?’ instead of asking me what I want,” said Sorter, a Braille proofreader at Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver. “That is exceedingly annoying.”
Talking to people with disabilities can stir up a flurry of anxiety, but avoiding interaction or coddling someone with a disability are among the chief ways people may unknowingly cause offense, said Ryan Green of Oregon Paralyzed Veterans of America in Salem. The chapter serves veterans from Clark County, in addition to Oregon residents.
Green, a paraplegic, speaks around the Pacific Northwest to raise awareness about proper etiquette toward people with disabilities and recently gave a presentation to Retirement Connection’s Clark County senior services professional network on “The Ten Commandments of Communicating with People with Disabilities.” The network meets monthly at Vancouver’s PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver.
The 54 million people with disabilities are the largest “minority group” in the nation and “the only group any of us can become a member of at any time,” Green said.
He knows that firsthand. He became paralyzed after a traffic accident in 1996 in Sioux Falls, S.D., and now uses a wheelchair. He draws many of the anecdotes about what not to do from his experience with his family.
People often think of certain terms, such as “gimp” or “handicap,” as the most offensive to someone with a disability, but that’s not always the case.
“Most people hate the word ‘handicap,’” Green said. “I don’t personally have a problem with it.” The term originated with World War II veterans with disabilities who used to hold out their cap to collect money or ask for work on street corners.
Top 10 tips
Here are some other tips from Green to help avoid causing discomfort:
1. Make eye contact and speak directly to the person rather than through the person’s companion or sign-language interpreter.
Amy Schmidt, managing partner at Retirement Connection, has a 7-year-old daughter who is deaf.
“A person my age was trying to talk to my daughter and asked me, ‘How does she know I’m talking to her?’ My daughter said, ‘‘Because your lips are moving,’” Schmidt said.
2. Offer to shake hands when introduced. People with limited hand mobility or an artificial limb usually can shake hands.
3. Always identify yourself and others in the room when you meet someone who is blind. When conversing in a group, identify the person to whom you are speaking. When dining with someone with limited or no eyesight, describe what is on his or her plate. For example, the hamburger is at 12 o’clock; fries are at 3 o’clock.
4. Offer assistance but wait to act until the offer is accepted. Then, ask or listen for instructions. Don’t assume the person wants help or that you know what kind of help the person needs. Also, don’t assume that someone doesn’t have a disability because it isn’t obvious.
“My dad assumes every handicapped parking space is for his son,” Green quipped. “If he sees someone who can walk in the space, he’ll say, ‘What are you doing there?’”
5. Treat adults as adults. For example, never patronize people in wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder. Green said his wife still teases him about an incident that happened when the couple were dating. Green was sitting in his wheelchair, and his mom came up to him in front of his future wife and started combing his hair for him.
6. Don’t lean against or hang on someone’s wheelchair or distract a guide dog from its owner.
7. Listen attentively when conversing with someone who has a speaking disability and wait for them to finish. Never pretend to understand. Instead, repeat what you did understand and allow the person to respond.
8. Place yourself at eye level when speaking with someone in a wheelchair or on crutches. You may be saving them from a neck ache.
9. Tap a person with a hearing disability on the shoulder or wave your hand to receive attention. Look directly at the person and speak slowly and expressively to find out if the person can read lips. Face a light source and keep hands and other items away from your mouth while speaking. Don’t assume someone with a hearing aid can’t distinguish your speaking voice from shouting. Speak in your normal tone of voice.
10. Relax. Continue using regular expressions such as “See you later,” or, “Did you hear about this?” that seems to relate to a person’s disability. People who are blind or deaf use the same expressions.
Sorter from the school for the blind giggles when asked whether it’s OK to say “See you later” to a blind person.
“I see things,” she said. “I may see them differently than you do, but I see them.”
She said political correctness has become overdone, including debate over whether it’s more polite to call someone “blind” or “visually impaired.”
“People get so unsure and worried, ‘What if I do something wrong?’ They won’t talk to you at all,” she said.