Etiquette is a part of life wherever we go, and it depends on context. How we behave in one situation can be different from how we are in another situation. We follow etiquette when we socialize, talk to our bosses, and go to the doctor. It can include cultural sensitivity. Using disability etiquette is important for respectfully interacting with disabled people. Here are 3 simple rules:
- Boundaries: Disability information is personal, sometimes medical, information. Just as you wouldn’t ask someone personal questions, like how much money they make, it is inappropriate to ask someone about their disability. Asking questions about someone’s disability is invasive and crosses personal boundaries. If someone wants to offer information, that is their choice. But it’s not OK to ask someone questions like, “What happened to you?” or “What’s wrong with you?” Imagine if someone else asked you the same thing and how uncomfortable you would feel. Also, everyone has a different comfort level with sharing personal information. Some people may say that they invite questions – however, that doesn’t mean that it is fine to approach other people the same way. Everyone has their own preferences. ‘Disability disclosure’ is sensitive. Professionals and others are not permitted to disclose a person’s disability. This is unethical. The rest of the community needs to learn more about disability etiquette, and with increased awareness of appropriate boundaries, we can be more effective and respectful.
- Equipment, services, and accessibility: When a disabled person uses a wheelchair or service animal, those are extensions of the person that may not be touched without permission. Don’t push someone’s wheelchair without permission and don’t pet service animals (they are on duty). Treat the person’s equipment as part of the person’s ‘bubble.’ Don’t pick up equipment either, such as a communication device. Out in the community, it is important not to create additional barriers for disabled people. Even if you are only going to be a minute, do not ever, under any circumstances, park in designated disability parking spaces. It is an act of discrimination because it makes it harder for a disabled person to access the community. It’s also arrogant and a slap in the face to disabled people, who already deal with enough barriers when trying to participate in life like everyone else. Don’t block disability entrances or door buttons or ramps. And if you use a public restroom, make sure to leave the disability stall available for use. Try to be aware when you are out and about and be open to hearing how you can be a community member who promotes accessibility.
- Helping, supporting, and assisting: You may tend to be a helpful, caring person who likes to assist people. You may be a nurturing type, and that’s great. But using disability etiquette, you will not assume that someone needs help unless you are asked. There are some situations when you may ask someone if they need something – for example, if someone is in danger or a crisis. Under ordinary circumstances, resist making assumptions about the person and what they need or want assistance with. If you are going through a door and someone is right behind you, you can hold the door just as you would for anyone else. If you see a disabled person approaching a door, let the person manage it on their own. It may seem to you that someone is struggling, but maybe that is how the person does things. It may look difficult to you, but is fine for them. One way that we can be more supportive is to be aware of our privilege. We don’t decide for someone else, without our privilege, what is best for them. Disabled people have agency over their own lives and it is not your job to act like their caretaker. It’s condescending and patronizing. So to be most respectful with appropriate boundaries, be courteous, but wait to be asked for your help.
There are many more disability etiquette topics. Hopefully this was informative and food for thought. There are lots of articles online to learn more like this one from the United Spinal Association. 🙂