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At Paraquad, we are often asked how people with disabilities adapt and do things differently to accomplish everyday tasks independently or with assistance. The Lens of Ability hopes to answer those questions through firsthand accounts of people living with a disability.

Disability Etiquette

In your everyday life, you probably come into contact with someone with a disability quite frequently. There are several situations that are all too common for someone for a person with a disability.

One of these situations involves service dogs. You likely know someone or have seen someone who uses one. What is your initial reaction to a service dog? Do you want to pet it or talk to it? People with service dogs often experience people rushing up to them to pet their dog.

It is certainly very compelling to see a cute, well-mannered dog and to want to pet it. However, service dogs serve a very important purpose for their handler. While they are working, they shouldn’t be distracted. Causing a distraction for a service dog is not only inconsiderate, but it can be dangerous for the handler depending on the dog’s function and what it’s supposed to be doing at the time.

For example, approaching a guide dog in the middle of a busy intersection could cause the dog to become distracted and possibly lead its handler into a dangerous situation.

Disability Etiquette

Instead of approaching a service dog and immediately beginning to pet it or to allow your children to pet it you should first ask the owner if it is all right. Do not be offended if the answer is “no.” After all, the dog is on the clock.

Disability Etiquette

Another scenario that you have probably come across is having a conversation with someone who uses a wheelchair.

When speaking to someone in a wheelchair you should never lean on their chair. Their wheelchair is an extension of their body. How would you feel if someone you were talking to leaned into you with their hand on your shoulder? It would feel a little invasive; the same is true for leaning on someone’s wheelchair.

Disability Etiquette

It is also very uncomfortable when speaking to someone who uses a wheelchair to look down or for them to look up for long periods of time to maintain eye contact. Do not be offended if the person asks you to take a seat. Looking up at people all day is exhausting for the neck muscles.

Disability Etiquette

If you plan to have a long conversation, you should try to find a chair or something else to sit on so that you are at eye level with the person. This will save a lot of neck cricks.

Disability Etiquette

Another common disability-related encounter that you may have is one with someone who is visually impaired or blind. Depending on the type and severity or the visual impairment and comfort level, a person may use a long white cane to help find their way.

Should you encounter a person who is using a white cane, do not assume that the person is lost. People who are blind or visually impaired may use different means of navigation to find their way but that does not mean that their way is any less effective.

Disability Etiquette

You should not grab the person or their cane and attempt to steer in any way. This can disorient the person.

Disability Etiquette

Instead, if the person appears to be disoriented or lost, ask them if they would like assistance. If they say yes, it is generally accepted that you offer your arm for them to grab (usually your right arm that they hold onto with their left) and allow them to lightly grip your elbow. They may walk slightly behind you and you should make note of any change in elevation.

For example, “There are four steps coming up.” Keep in mind that the person you encounter may have a different preference on how they like to be guided, so you should ask the person what their preference is.

Disability Etiquette

Another situation in which you may feel inclined to help is when you encounter someone with a physical disability seeming to struggle with an activity. Again, your first inclination may be to rush up to them to help, but just like someone with a visual impairment, the person may not need help at all.

This woman, Diane, is taking her scooter apart to put it in the trunk of her car. Edisa rushes in to help her because it looks to Edisa like Diane is struggling.

Disability Etiquette

Diane explains to Edisa that she takes her scooter apart every day and she is a pro at it. She says there is a very specific way it has to be taken apart and loaded into her trunk. Because Edisa doesn’t know this, it is much more preferable for Edisa to allow Diane to do it for herself.

It is, however, always all right to ask if someone needs help.

Disability Etiquette

If the person says yes, you should listen to the instructions they give on how they would like to be helped. If the person says no you should respect their decision and allow them to continue on their own.

Most people are well-meaning when they lean on someone’s chair (trying to show affection or connection), pet a service dog or rush in to help someone they think needs help. But someone who is trying to help can actually do more harm than good in many situations.

If you are unsure of what to do, how to help or even if the person needs help, simply ask. When you ask, you should be ready to hear the answer and react accordingly.

Don’t be offended if someone tells you that you can’t pet their service dog, that they don’t need help finding their way or completing a task or if they tell you they need you to sit down to better converse with you.

Everyone is an expert on what they need. People with disabilities are no exception.

Alyssa Schafer is the Consumer Directed Services (CDS) Timesheet Compliance Manager at Paraquad. She can be reached at aschafer@paraquad.org.

Photo credit: Alyssa Schafer/Ladybug Photography LLC

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