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Q&A: How to Interact with a Disabled Person

“If I want to interact with a disabled person, I just trust my instincts, right? I talk slowly and loudly, pat their head, and show love to their service dog!”

Disabled people are normal people. But that doesn’t mean everyone knows how to be polite. It helps to know the basics so you don’t put your foot in your mouth. (Which, if you do, might be a sign of a hypermobility disability!)

Anyway, let’s talk about basic manners.

How Do I Talk Politely to Disabled People? What is Rude?

You have seen plenty of disabled people in public. In fact, many times, you probably didn’t know they were disabled.

But sometimes, it will be clear. If you want to interact with a disabled person, treat them with respect. Here are a few things that means.

Talk to Them Directly

Many disabled people say that people don’t talk straight to them. Instead, people turn to their partners, friends, or family members to ask “What does she want to order?” or “How old is he?” This has happened to disabled people in my family. It can make you feel invisible.

If you have a question about a disabled person, then ask them directly. Not their companion. If they need the person’s help, then they will get it. Otherwise, asking them helps them feel seen.

They might not make eye contact. If they have an interpreter, then they might look at the interpreter. Still, keep talking to them.

Speak Clearly and Normally

Person A: “I’m hard of hearing, so please let me see your mouth when you talk.”

Person B: “OH… REALLY?… YOU… ARE… SO… BRAVE!”

Yeah, don’t do that. You don’t need to yell or talk slowly when you interact with a disabled person. It doesn’t help. In fact, it can feel awkward or even insulting.

This is true for both deaf and neurodivergent people. If you interact with a person who might be disabled, don’t start shouting in their ears. Instead, speak normally. If they need you to speak up or slow down, then they can tell you.

What do they actually need? Some disabled people, like those with auditory processing disorder, might need an extra second or two to process. So, just be OK with longer pauses.

But many people are good with your normal volume and pace. Start there and follow cues if they let you know something different.

Be Age-Appropriate

Don't use baby talk on adults with Down syndrome. Someone says come here, cutie wootie to a girl with Down syndrome who feels awkward.
Leave the baby talk for babies. (Instagram)

Disabled adults aren’t kids in adult bodies. They’re adults. And they may be just as mature as their peers.

Don’t treat someone like a child just because they:

  • Are small
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Fidget or have “odd” body language
  • Wear a cartoon shirt
  • Speak slowly
  • Have a speech impediment
  • Have a high-pitched or “childlike” voice

This means not to call them “sweetie” or use cutesy language. If you wouldn’t talk to their peers that way, then don’t talk to them that way. It can feel demeaning.

Also, don’t assume you have to censor the adult stuff. Many disabled adults swear, watch R-rated TV, and talk about sex. Don’t apologize for doing that if you wouldn’t apologize to a non-disabled person. In fact, maybe they want to join the conversation about horror movies or bad first date stories.

Most disabled adults aren’t delicate flowers. Unless they tell you differently, treat them like typical adults.

What Counts as Polite Behavior when You Interact with a Disabled Person?

What about the nonverbal stuff? You probably know the basics, like “don’t physically trap someone” and “we don’t pat the heads of adults.” Still, there are some common mistakes when it comes to manners.

Don’t Help Without Asking

Imagine a wheelchair user who can walk just a few steps at a time. She visits the library, picks a book, and sees the perfect cozy little chair. She wheels up to it, ready to take a few steps to get in. But then, some stranger drags the chair away.

The stranger in this story might have thought they were helping. But instead of solving a problem, they created one.

You don’t know if a disabled person needs help. Maybe they know what they’re doing. Maybe they want something different from what you think they want. Or maybe they want to try doing it themselves even though it’s hard.

How do you avoid getting in the way? Ask if they need help. And if they give you instructions, follow those instructions. They know their needs better than you do.

If they say they don’t need help, then let them be. Don’t get pushy. If they change their minds, they’ll know they can come to you.

Respect Personal Space

drawing of a woman in a wheelchair feeling uncomfortable with some guy using her wheelchair's armrest, with words saying disabled people have personal space too
Her wheelchair is not your armrest. (Instagram)

Treat mobility aids like body parts. Would you put your bag on someone else’s shoulder or move someone’s foot to the corner? No? Then don’t put your bag on someone’s wheelchair or move their cane somewhere else. A wheelchair user is not your coat rack.

It’s rude to touch someone without asking. So, don’t touch their disability equipment unless they ask you to.

This rule is true even if you’re “helping.” No one likes to be grabbed unexpectedly, so don’t do that. Instead, ask questions like “Would you like me to push you up this steep hill?” or “Would you like me to bring your cane over?”

Let “Odd” Behavior Go

A neurodivergent person might act a little different. Maybe they fidget, have tics, or don’t look you in the eye.

Western society might say this is rude or it means they are lying. But suppressing this might be too hard for them. For example, forcing eye contact could disrupt someone’s focus. Being “odd” helps them do their best.

Instead of pushing them to stop, let it go. If they can still talk back and forth, then they must be listening. Let them do what they need to be comfortable.

If you know them well, and you see it’s happening more than usual, then it might be OK to ask about it. For example, “I notice your fidgeting is really intense today. Are you having a hard time? Would it help if we went somewhere less busy?”

Otherwise, ignore it. We all have our quirks. Instead of focusing on it, just have a nice conversation.

Can I Interact with a Disabled Person’s Service Dog?

Service dogs help some disabled people lead better lives. They make things easier or safer.

Here are some tasks a dog might do:

  • Guide someone
  • Alert a deaf person to sounds
  • Warn about health issues like low blood sugar or oncoming seizures
  • Check for food allergens
  • Help someone balance
  • Calm a neurodivergent person
  • Remind someone to take their meds
  • Grab items
  • Get help (even call 911!)

Unlike emotional support animals, service dogs can go wherever the public can go.

Not all service dogs are yellow. Dogs of all breeds and sizes can be service dogs. Also, they may not have vests or certificates.

So, what should you do?

If you see a service dog in public, give it space. Don’t bother it or say hi without permission. If you have kids, teach them to do the same. No one should:

  • Touch the dog without permission
  • Offer food
  • Take photos
  • Whistle or make kissy sounds
  • Bring their pets over uninvited
  • Try to interact
  • Try to test if the dog is “fake” by breaking its focus

In fact, distracting a service dog can be dangerous. For example, a seizure-alert dog needs to focus on its handler’s health. If you get in the way, then you can put the handler in danger.

Any dog you see could be a service dog. If you want to say hi, then ask the handler first. And if they say no, respect that. (This is good manners in general.)

Only the handler knows if it’s OK to say hi.

Finally, know that some service dogs will seek help in an emergency. So, if you see a service dog without a handler, follow the dog. They might be trying to show you that their handler needs help or a 911 call.

The Best Way to Interact with a Disabled Person

Above all, disabled people need respect. It’s really that simple. Disabled people aren’t freaks, charity cases, helpless children, or burdens. Just people who want to be treated fairly.

You can boil this down to a few things to know:

  1. They understand their needs better than you do.
  2. Let them be different without making it a big deal.
  3. Be age-appropriate.
  4. Give them the same respect as you give their peers.
  5. If you don’t know what to do, then you can always ask how to be helpful.

I won’t pretend that if everyone knew and did these things, then life would be easy for disabled people. (Though it would be a lot better!) Being disabled is still hard. And disabled people have regular problems like family issues, work problems, and things like that too. Life is hard sometimes and you can’t fix that.

But you can help. When you interact with a disabled person, show them that you hear them and respect them. Be there to make their lives a little easier.

It won’t fix everything. But it can make things a bit better. And that’s a start.

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