Reader queries

Assisting a blind person cross the road comes naturally to some people. But they may be at a loss about how to be helpful or sensitive to a person with any disability, say when they are a guest visiting the home of someone with a disability; or if the reverse happens – if someone with a disability visits their home. What could be some common sense dos and don’ts?
Samir, Kolkata

Dear Samir

This is a good question though it sounds simple. The urge to assist or help people with disabilities comes naturally to most of us. However, most of us refrain from doing so because we are afraid we might make a mistake. Historically, people with disabilities were put into institutions, excluded from the mainstream and as a result, our interactions with people with disabilities remained limited. We see disabled beggars on the streets, give them alms and move away. But most of us have not had a single disabled class friend in school and so we never learnt to interact with them as peers. Thus distances have been created in our minds and our fear to interact with anything that is ‘different’ poses more problems.

People with disabilities deserve clear communication and accurate information like everyone else, irrespective of the issue – message from a discussion session at the ’21st International AIDS Conference’, Durban, July 21, 2016. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Obviously the best way to deal with your concern is to ask the person directly what they require and how. It is a common misconception that if a person is blind or deaf, they can’t take their own decisions. So even while serving food, we tend not to ask the disabled person what they want; rather we ask their escort whether they would prefer tea or coffee. This is extremely rude and shows our non-acceptance of the personhood of a disabled person. Even if one does not know ‘sign language’, something as simple as tea and coffee can be easily conveyed and lip-reading such words will not be difficult for a person with hearing impairment. Communicating with a blind person is much simpler as one just has to strike up a direct conversation.

However, as a blind person enters a room, they may not be able to comprehend the size of the room, the number of people present or the direction in which people are seated. So asking them politely if they want an orientation of the room and explaining some details of the room will be helpful. Also, people who are already in the room need to speak to the blind person even if just to say “Hello!” Otherwise the blind person won’t know who is present. A blind person will recognise voices – so it’s important to give a verbal cue to them.

When one is talking to someone in a wheelchair, it’s not a good thing to lean on the wheelchair. Moving a person’s assistive device without asking the person is unacceptable.

There are several websites with separate chapters on disability etiquette. You can access them for more information. Here we highlight a few key issues.

When talking to a person with a disability, look at and speak directly to that person, rather than their companion.

Avoid assuming the preferences and needs of people with disabilities. They are individuals and thus have individual preferences and needs. Therefore, if you have the impression that a person needs help, ask the person if, and then how, you may be of assistance.

Communicate clearly and comprehensibly.  As with all communication, an effective message is one that is spoken and / or written clearly and comprehensibly. This point is extremely important for people with disabilities who may have difficulty comprehending messages. Be sure to convey your message in an understandable form and in multiple ways if necessary.

Unless you have a specific need to know about the nature of someone’s disability, don’t ask about their disability. Your focus should be on what the person is communicating to you.

In your conversation, please relax. Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted common expressions such as “See you later” or “Got to be running along” that seem to relate to the person’s disability. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you are unsure of how to assist the person.

First and foremost, one needs to remember that a person with a disability is first a person, and we need to treat them as equals, as human beings. If a specific communication mode is required, you will learn soon enough if you keep an open mind.