Even the most well-mannered person can find herself at a loss when dealing with those with disabilities. 

What do I say? How should I act?

Husband Carl can attest to how uncomfortable some people are when interacting with him in his power wheelchair. It’s like the age-old question, “What do I do with my hands?” 

In this case, the question is, “How do I treat a person with a disability?”

That’s exactly the idea of Judy Cohen’s “Disability Etiquette: Tips on Interacting with People with Disabilities,” a 1998 publication of the United Spinal Association. The book addresses all kinds of disabilities such as impaired sight or hearing, cognitive issues and physical limitations, and still has application some 20-plus years later.

First, Cohen advises a slight adjustment in vocabulary, referring to a “person with a disability” rather than a “disabled person.” While the difference may seem mere semantics, the former refers to an individual first and his disability second. Note that “handicap” stays in a golf game and “cripple” just isn’t used at all.

For those confined to wheelchairs, their chairs are their major form of transportation, and according to Cohen, should be respected as such. I know I get a little too casual about my husband’s chair and find myself throwing my coat on it or hanging my purse on the back.

Some of us humans are downright protective of our “personal space,” and those who are disabled are no different. Cohen advises being sensitive about physical contact, especially for those who need their arms for balance or who need some room around them. 

For Carl, the issue is the joystick that controls his power chair. On more than one occasion, an individual has reached out to shake his hand, accidentally caught the joystick and narrowly escaped having his foot crunched as the chair rolls forward.

There’s also an issue with reach. Yes, it was obvious that Carl wouldn’t be able to reach above him. What I didn’t count on, however, was how difficult it would be to reach out in front. Sitting in his power chair means he can’t reach beyond his knees. I’m forever setting an object on the counter for him to use, but he must grab his “pinchers” to reach it.

One of the hardest issues for folks in wheelchairs is accessibility, especially in public places. When I shop or eat in a restaurant, I can’t help but wonder how Carl could navigate the space. Restaurants have tables too close together; store racks are so bundled that even I can barely fit a shopping cart around them. 

Factor in motorized Carl, and I know he’s likely to take out a rack or two with his chair or scratch more than a few of those restaurant chairs.

I think the biggest difficulty may be simply talking to the person. For us, I can confirm that Carl is the same person he’s always been. He still tells hunting and snowmobiling stories, watches old westerns and has his dad’s gift of gab. The only difference is, now he’s in a wheelchair.

In the end, Cohen has one main piece of advice, “Just be considerate.”

And I’ve found it works like a charm no matter the individual – disability or not.

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