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Disability Etiquette: How We Can Be Better

Interacting with people with disabilities is not only something workers at MDCR may encounter, but also something that we in our everyday lives can and will experience. While it isn't unnatural to feel anxious or perhaps unsure about how to interact with someone who has a disability, it is necessary and vital that we treat them with respect and understanding, and we use appropriate etiquette.

When it comes to proper general etiquette while addressing someone with a disability, the priority is to take a person-first approach always. Approaching people in a person-first manner is integral to showing respect to all individuals with any and every disability.

Tonia Peterson of Michigan Rehabilitation Services emphasized the importance of putting a person before their disability. Peterson provided an example: if somebody is on the autism spectrum, it is inappropriate to simply state 'they are autistic'. The appropriate approach would be to identify the person first, and then note that they also have autism. Also noted from Peterson is the importance of transparency and honesty when in such a situation. "If you don't know how to address them, just ask them."

Outdated and/or inappropriate terms today may have been words you grew up thinking were normal, but that may have changed as we have progressed as a society.  Peterson highlighted an inappropriate term such as 'handicapped'. When used in reference to bathrooms and/or parking spaces, it is also not appropriate, as those accommodations should be referred to as 'accessible' instead.

The importance of using appropriate terms cannot be overstated. Examples include saying 'powered chair' instead of 'electric chair', avoiding using the word 'impaired', or offensive terms like 'handicapped', 'differently-abled', or 'wheelchair-bound'.

Kelley Frake of the State ADA Compliance Office stated the importance of transparency. In order to become better educated, Frake recommended openly asking questions and being honest, rather than being concerned with offending the individual. People with disabilities would prefer honest questions as it creates a safer and more comfortable environment. "Actually talking to the person is extremely important," Frake said.

Frake also focused on the topic of showing respect for those with service animals. "When it comes to service animals, it's important to interact with the person and ignore the animal." She relates it to speaking to a deaf person with an interpreter. "You should address the person, not the interpreter. They're just there to assist."

Frake stressed the fact that you should never pet a service animal when it is working. "It's still a living a creature. It can have off days, and it can get distracted if you're petting it. The focus should be on the person."

Speaking to the person and not whoever is there to assist is heavily emphasized within the deaf community particularly. Jeanette Johnson, MDCR's social media analyst, is deaf and provided her input from a place of experience. "It's important to speak to us directly [the deaf community]. Be normal paced and remember to make eye contact." She also highlights that it is important to ask someone who is deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing what term they prefer to use for their disability.

Johnson stressed the importance of simply being normal. And this applies beyond just the deaf community.

"Tell us your name, be respectful, and don't expect it to be awkward. Feel free to ask clarifying questions in order to make a better connection."

At MDCR, you can take the initiative in order to communicate effectively with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. For work-related meetings, the department will cover interpreting costs, so plan ahead and schedule an interpreter. This shows respect and an interest in ensuring full participation for your co-workers, and giving them the communication access they need to be able to share their knowledge and insight.

Of course, a disability can provide obstacles, but it is a misconception to think a disability restricts people from being capable of work. "Don't assume what people can and can't do," stated Kelley Frake. And along similar lines, Tonia Peterson said, "You work with people with disabilities every day. Some you may not even be aware of. Every person deserves to be treated with respect and understanding."

Many people have disabilities, disadvantages, or just different circumstances compared to others with whom we interact, but the similarities start with the fact that we are all human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity. Ask questions, be honest, have understanding, and be helpful when needed.