Everyday Etiquette: Dealing with Disabilities

By Diane Gottsman

The most common mistake children (and adults) make when interacting with someone who has a disability is treating that person differently than they would anyone else.

It is important to emphasize to your children that a person with a disability must be treated with the same consideration and respect they would extend to any other adult. If, for example, they meet an adult with a speech impediment, the inability to speak or speak clearly, does not mean that they should treat that person like a child. Discuss with your children, in advance, what the word disability means so they will have a better understanding, which will help them to be more confident when placed in this situation.

Children can benefit from some basic etiquette rules that will make the interaction more comfortable for everyone concerned:

  • Together, look up the word "disabled" in the dictionary. Discuss the term with your children so they will understand the meaning.

  • Shake hands when introduced to someone with a disability. Senator Bob Dole had an injury to his right hand; therefore he shakes hands with his left.

  • Speak directly to the person with the disability, looking him or her directly in the eyes. Don't talk to another person as if the person with the disability is not present. Just because a person has an injury to his or her leg, does not mean that he or she cannot carry on a conversation.

  • Do not stare at someone with a disability. Staring is rude under any circumstance.

  • Don't use the word "handicap." A person who has a medical condition that is disabling may not be handicapped under every circumstance. Don't assume that a person without an arm is not able, or willing, to do or try something new, based on an impaired or missing limb. Point out that many handicapped athletes are tremendous competitors and don't let their disability get in the way of success.

  • Understand that medical equipment used by a disabled person is part of their personal space. Teach your child to ask before touching, moving or hanging items off of someone's wheelchair, for example. Even if well-intentioned, it is important to be respectful of another's property.

  • Children are innately friendly and may intend to show their acceptance by wanting to pat the disabled person on the head. Remind your child, in advance, that people with disabilities have the same feelings we all have and should be treated with the same respect that any other person would receive.

  • It is never appropriate to pet or feed another person's "service animal." Children mean no harm when they reach down to pet a blind person's dog, but it could cause serious problems for the sight-impaired Diane Gottsman

  • Speak naturally when talking to someone who is hearing impaired or who has a speech impediment. Do not scream or exaggerate lip movements. Also, keep your hands away from your mouth.

  • Relax and enjoy the other person's company. Let your child know not to worry if they say something like "See you later" to someone who cannot see, or "Did you hear that story?" to someone who is hearing impaired. These comments are harmless and they demonstrate that you see them as a regular person, not someone with a handicap or disability.

Again, emphasize to your children that people with disabilities are normal people who have physical limitations. Encourage your children to relax, smile and be themselves. Let them ask plenty of questions, and don't be afraid to be open with them when they address their concerns.