Don’t Worry…It’s Cool

Don’t Worry…It’s Cool – treating people

Darren Jernigan

Byline: Darren Jernigan

When I broke my neck in an automobile accident, I quickly realized that being separated from the physical world changed the way many people communicated with me.

Most people are apprehensive at the thought of offending disabled people by acting inappropriately. What do I do? What do I say? Maybe I should just ignore them…

Take my advice: Treat people, with or without a disability, with a little courtesy, respect and some common sense. To follow are a few examples:

I am not a “shut-in.” Nor am I wheelchair-bound or confined to a wheelchair. I simply am a wheelchair user, and I do get out.

The word “handicap” derives from an old English term meaning “cap in hand,” which signifies a beggar. No one wants to be described as a beggar.

Use “people first” language. It is better to say “person with a disability,” rather than “a disabled person.” The disability is secondary and it should not define the person.

Do not put an unnecessary spotlight on a person with a disability. For example, I am not afflicted with paralysis, victimized with a broken neck or bravely fighting quadriplegia. I have no special needs, nor am I courageous for getting up in the morning or inspiring for engaging in daily activities. Using these terms could be interpreted as unwanted sympathy or, worse, pity.

Speak directly to the person with whom you want to communicate, not the person’s caregiver or friends. Further, please do not shout at a person with disabilities. My neck was broken, but I did not lose my hearing.

Finally, be cool and don’t worry about every little thing you say, especially if it sounds like it could be associated with someone’s disability. For instance, it is okay to say to a person in a wheelchair, “I have been running around all day” or to a deaf person, “Did you hear what Katie did?” These phrases are not about the person’s disability, but simply figures of speech. Loosen up.

As part of my daily routine, I spend most of my time looking up at people. If you start a conversation with a person in a wheelchair, attempt to meet him or her at eye level by sitting on a chair or another piece of furniture. Sometimes, people lean against my wheelchair or bump into it without saying “Excuse me.” This is inappropriate. Most people in wheelchairs feel that the wheelchairs are a part of their bodies.

If you offer assistance to a person with a disability – opening a door for him or her, for instance – ask the person first if he or she needs help. By not asking, you may be taking away what little independence the person with the disability feels he or she has.

When you meet with a person who is blind, always remember to introduce or identify yourself, as well as others with you, and let the person who is blind know that you have extended your hand for a handshake. Verbally describe any physical gestures that may pertain to the person who is blind. Additionally, always let the person who is blind know when you are leaving the conversation or the room.

Finally, when communicating with a person who has a hearing impairment, get his or her attention by waving your hand or by putting your hand on his or her body. Look directly at the person and speak slowly and clearly so the person can read your lips. Face the light and keep your hands away from your mouth.

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