Socialising with the disabled: A guide for the perplexed

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Out of awkardness, the able-bodied find it hard to deal with the disabled. The golden rule is to treat the handicapped like the normal people they are.

Disabled sign

Friday 18 September 2015

Regular interaction with people of various backgrounds equips us to better deal, communicate and empathise with others.  This is particularly important when it comes to people living with disabilities. Despite progress made in integrating and empowering the disabled, so many able-bodied people still find it hard to deal with and feel awkard around those with a handicap – and this is more often out of ignorance or inexperience, rather than malice.

To help end these ‘awkward moments’, I consulted with disabled friends and acquaintances, as well as online support groups, to produce a list of 10 things that you should refrain from doing when meeting a person living with disability.

  1. The Stare

Having a disability is not an invitation to stare and examine that person. It could be intriguing to see someone who has different abilities to you, but that is not an excuse to pry into their private space – we are not a freak show nor some kind of entertainment for your amusement. Staring will not gain you any useful information. If you sincerely have questions or are curious to learn more about the person, then politely approach them. This would be better than standing far away, staring and making them feel uncomfortable.

  1. Make eye contact

So when you are on the opposite side of the street you stare at the disabled person but when you are in front of each other and actually speaking, you look at everything but the actual person – this is an all too common scenario. It is a sign of courtesy to look at the person you are speaking with. Just because the person is disabled, it does not mean they should be treated with less respect, no matter how uncomfortable their disabilitiy makes you feel. If they are in a wheelchair, then stoop or bend down to be at the same level as them – it will be of mutual benefit, as you can both hear each other better and communicate in a more friendly fashion.

  1. No pets allowed

A disabled person does not crave a hug and certainly not a pat on the head from strangers, so save the patronising acts. Even if you have the best of intentions, you must remember that the person with disability is an adult like you regardless of height/weight/appearance, and deserves the same respect that you expect of people. Treat others as you would like to be treated. One disabled person that was interviewed for this article narrated a story of her being a guest at an event  where she met another lady who for some reason felt the need to pat the disabled person’s head as a form of goodbye. It may seem like a nice gesture or a form of affection, but the disabled person, who is an adult herself, did not appreciate the pat on the head. It made her feel like a pet or a young child.

  1. Talking over your head

Whatever you do, do not ignore the disabled person. It may make you feel more comfortable to address their companion, but it is hurtful and insulting to the disabled person. One disabled woman related an incident where she was slightly lost and asked for directions, yet the man she approached decided to address her non-English speaking carer and show her the way. The carer clearly did not understand a word so looked confused, and the woman in the wheelchair pointed out that it was her who had asked for help. This made the man feel embarrassed. It is a sign of respect to talk directly to, and not over the head of, a disabled person – it’s also more fun.

  1. “What happened?”

Curiosity is a natural human instinct, but how would knowing the reason behind the person’s disability improve your life? There are so many incidents of disabled people being stopped by perfect strangers asking what had happened to them, clearly assuming that an accident of some sort is the cause of the disability, as though being born disabled is a rarity. Knowledge is important and learning about disability is a commendable aspect, as it enables better interaction and understanding, but there is a difference between seeking information for constructive purposes and just plain curious interference. Remember, not everyone is comfortable with their disability and may not want to talk about it, while others will regard it as personal information that cannot be shared with a stranger. If you want to learn about disability, get to know the person first, then ask questions. Now that you are thinking about it, you may come to recognise that people you already know have “invisible” forms of disability.

  1. Pity

Just because a person is differently abled to you it does not mean that they are in a worse situation than you or are in pain or have no purpose in life and deserve your pity. Many people with disability lead a full and active life and, yes, they might endure pain, but they need understanding and acceptance, rather than pity.

  1. Assumptions based on falsehood

If you see a disabled person in the company of others, there is no need to tell the person with a disability, “You are lucky to have such good friends who take you out,” or “You are lucky to have such a wonderful mother who cares for you.” It may seem harmless, but it is hurtful and patronising. Bear in mind that your sweeping observation based on your interpretation of the situation is not necessarily factual. For example, who says that the disabled person needs others to take them out? They may well have just met up with them in that particular place, and even if friends did take them out, why would they need praising, isn’t that what friends do? Just as most mothers would treat their children with care.

  1. Angels and demons

Not every disabled person is angelic, in need of help or of low intellectual ability, so don’t judge them based on appearance or preconceived ideas. Don’t assume that the disabled person is not educated enough or smart enough to converse with you. Many disabled people are university graduates. On the other extreme, being disabled does not give your immaculate, angelic qualities. Being different in ability does not make us special creatures. We are essentially human beings, and all humans have flaws. Finally, don’t assume that the disabled person is in need of help. If they require it, they will ask, so don’t just plunge in without asking if assistance is needed.

  1. Childhood curiosity

If your child is staring or asking questions loudly about the disabled person that they see, don’t tell the child off and shout. Either explain in detail what disability entails or encourage the child to speak with the disabled person, rather than staring with fear from a distance. Beware: children copy adults, so don’t set a bad example by staring yourself.

  1. Divine intervention

Certain people associate God, religion and salvation with disability. There are people that start to thank God and pray loudly in front of the disabled person for being saved from his or her predicament. While it is important to show gratitude and offer thanks to God for our health and well-being, there is no need to do it overtly and openly in front of the disabled person as it signifies superiority, as though you are better off and have been chosen by God instead of him or her. When you see a person living with disability, don’t offer them your prayers for a “cure” – even if you feel it is a selfless gesture. Don’t assume that the disabled person wants a “cure” – we are all different, with our own aspirations. Just because you were born without disability and regard it as the norm and best status, it does not apply to everyone. A person born with a disability will often regard his/her status as the most appropriate because it is what they know. Similarly, don’t ask for a prayer from a disabled person. They are ordinary human beings, just like you, with no special powers or closer connection to God.

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