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8 ways to improve your disability etiquette

Some simple, handy dandy tips to finesse any interaction with people with disabilities.

By Mike Walker

I have spastic cerebral palsy. That means that I experience constant muscle tension and spatial disorientation, as well as some chronic pain, logical deficits and mathematical difficulties. Of course, I'm also a person, just like you. Right?

Right! Since we're all people first, we all need to be treated with courtesy and respect. I've gleaned a few strategies from my own life experience, my reading and my work at OCAD University's Our Doors are Open project. Here are a few tips to help you finesse your disability etiquette:

1. Do not make decisions that affect people with disabilities without their participation. This point, from Catholic disability-advocate Jennie Weiss Block book Copious Hosting, is crucial. People with disabilities (and/or our caregivers), have agency to act for our well-being in the world. Even with our limitations, we need to make active, engaged choices about our own lives.

2. Treat people the same way you would like to be treated. People with disabilities are just ordinary people, and sometimes we all need assistance. Use common sense and compassion when you interact with us, appropriate to the situation. If you see me ascending a staircase with a large suitcase in hand, offer to help. This is just basic kindness.

3. Give a little extra time. A person with a disability sometimes needs a few more seconds or minutes with a given task. Make this accommodation willingly, in a way that does not make the person feel uncomfortable. The ambiguity of my body means that I need small amounts of extra time to do almost everything. For instance, it takes me an hour to cook three servings of pasta, eat one of them and pack the rest. I appreciate living in community with understanding people!

4. When speaking with those who are D/deaf or hard of hearing, gain the person's attention before beginning to speak. Say the person's name at the beginning of the sentence and minimize interruptions, advise Mark Stephenson and Terry DeYoung, authors of Inclusion Handbook: Everybody Belongs, Everybody Serves. Come to think of it, this would be a good practice for any conversation! Also, at church and other venues, check the acoustics. Make sure everyone can hear you by minimizing the echo.

5. For people with visual impairments, offer your arm. If your assistance is accepted, the best practice is to offer your elbow and allow the person to direct you. Walk as you normally would.

6. Don't ask people with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia to remember things that happened in the past. Talk about what you remember or know happened, and how the person was a part of it. Practically, this point is sound because it involves the person with dementia in the memory. Theologically, even if the person cannot recall the memory, God can, because God — as the source of goodness — is the source of good memories.

7. Provide captions or audio descriptions for multimedia. Captions are practical not only for people with disabilities, but also for all those who speak English as a second language, children and others who may struggle to understand spoken language. Audio descriptions are useful for many groups of people, too. Alternative forms of media can benefit everyone, according to Our Doors are Open Guide for Accessible Congregations. Similarly, incorporate various visual, textual and audio elements into your communications. This helps people to receive your message through the medium they find most understandable. Diverse kinds of media can appeal to people with various learning styles.

8. Clear indoor and outdoor pathways of debris and clutter. This tip hits home for me, because I'm a person with mobility issues, and I fall far more often than I'd like! My life would be so much simpler if everyone kept walkways free of barriers.

Mike Walker (ma.walker@mail.utoronto.ca) is a theologian of disability and poet with spastic cerebral palsy. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he's currently based in Toronto. Using his Th.D., recently earned from Knox College at the University of Toronto, Walker wants to be a professor of theology and an accessibility advocate. When he's not working, he loves to read, write, exercise and hang out with friends.

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