Disability Etiquette

I have a peripheral connection to the world of Rehabilitation. I am a neuroscientist/physiologist type and much of my work can be and has been used to support rehab strategies for specific disorders or dysfunctions. Before this was true, I was blithely unaware of all sorts of issues. As is true, when one starts meeting individuals of different sorts and become friends, one’s perspective changes. I know I have a long way to go to be an ally, but I am still working on it.

Meantime, I still feel that disability is something that often gets overlooked in in our parade of fighting “=isms”. There is so much that is really good in this handbook, that I don’t know where to start. It’s all about respect, and trying to think about what another person may want and need. Things like: wheelchairs are part of a person with disabilities’ personal space, so don’t touch it without permission (by the way the same is true for a pregnant woman’s abdomen – where the fuck did you get permission to touch me and my baby without asking for permission?).

The handbook goes through specifics involved with different categories of disability: Deafness, Cerebral Palsy, Tourettews, Epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, etc. One that we may not think about enough is short stature, which can be the result of numerous different medical conditions.The first should never have to be said.

As with people who have other disabilities, never pet or kiss a person of short stature on the head.

Communication can be easier when people are at the same level. Persons of short stature have different preferences. You might kneel to be at the person’s level; stand back so you can make eye contact without the person straining her neck (this can be hard to do in a crowded room); or sit in a chair. Act natural and follow the person’s cues.

Peter Dinklage has done quite a bit to change general views on this. But as he says:

Dwarves are still the butt of jokes. It’s one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice.

One of the sections that I thought valuable was about what to call people:

Put the person first. Say “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person.” Say “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” For specific disabilities, saying “person with Tourette syndrome” or “person who has cerebral palsy” is usually a safe bet. Still, individuals do have their own preferences. If you are not sure what words to use, ask.

That’s the bottom line: people are people, and they come first.

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