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Interacting with Disabled Students on College Campuses: Disability Etiquette & Words of Wisdom

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Woman in wheelchair attending group meeting

Earlier this month, I wrote about my college experience as a disabled student at my alma mater, Winthrop University.  That article received great responses from those within my networks; one particular response came from a former professor suggesting that I write a follow-up article for classmates and professors.  She stated that such an article would be helpful to those who are interacting with disabled students for the first time, which I highly agreed with.

Online, I have seen several blog postings about academic ableism from current or former college students who experienced ablesim (which is discrimination against those with disabilities) during their collegiate years.  Though I am fortunate to have not had firsthand experience of this matter, I am well aware that such prejudices and misconceptions about students with disabilities exist on our campuses.  Such incidences does not just affect that disabled student’s self-esteem about their status, but it can also be detrimental to their educational success.  No one should feel ostracized or demeaned by their peers or professors due to being disabled; this is a form of injustice that cannot be ignored or accepted in or outside the classroom.

Disability Etiquette – How to Respectfully Interact with Disabled College Students:

Merriam-Webster defines the word “etiquette” as being “the rules indicating the proper and polite way to behave.”  When it comes to those with disabilities, there is indeed a RIGHT way and a full on “facepalm,” “could you be that clueless/ignorant” way to interacting with us.  Disability Rights and Resources has an entire page dedicated to the “do’s” and “don’ts” when it comes to ensuring that you are empowering and not offending those with disabilities you come into contact with.  Below are a few key ones I wanted to share in this article that would be beneficial to remember when interacting with disabled college students (and disabled people in general).  (The statements in bold are imperative to place in your memory banks.  My added commentary will be italicized):

A wheelchair, cane, or any other assistive device used to help a person with a disability is considered part of their personal space and should never be leaned on, picked up, or touched.

When in doubt about offering assistance to a person with a disability, ask “may I help you with that?”  If they need help, they will accept it.  If they do not, do not take offense.  Maybe they are learning a new technique for completing a task, or maybe they just want to see if they can do it.  Never just help without asking.

Treat adults in a manner befitting adults, regardless of their disability.  Call a person by his or her first name only when extending familiarity to all others present.  Do not patronize people with disabilities by patting them on the head or hand, or by talking to them in baby talk.  Reserve this sign of affection for children and pets.

Speak directly to a person with a disability, rather than through a companion who may be along.

When talking to a person in a wheelchair for more than a few minutes, place yourself at the wheelchair user’s eye level to spare both of you a stiff neck.  Grab a chair and sit with that person while you talk.  Standing over someone in a wheelchair or of short stature causes you both to feel uncomfortable, as well as unnecessary back and neck pain.

When greeting someone with a significant loss of vision, always identify yourself and others who may be with you.  Say, for example, “On my right is John Miller.”  When conversing in a group, remember to say the name of the person to whom you are speaking to give a vocal cue.  Speak in a normal tone of voice, indicate when you move from one place to another, and let it be known when the conservation is at an end.

When giving directions to a person in a wheelchair, walking on crutches, or someone who uses a cane, please consider distance, weather conditions, and physical obstacles such as stairs, curbs, and steep hills.  (This is especially important when students are trying to find their way to classes, cafeterias, and other campus venues during the first few weeks of school.)

Be considerate of the extra time it might take for a person with a disability to get things done or said.  Let the person set the pace in walking or talking.

When planning events involving people with disabilities consider their needs ahead of time.  If an insurmountable barrier exists, let them know about it prior to the event.  (Another key one to remember when planning events/gatherings on campus that may be in older buildings that are not fully ADA-compliant.)

Never use the word “handicapped.”  Like many terms that refer to minorities, the word itself is not the problem, but the negativity that has been attached to it.  At the least it denotes a problem or a burden.  At worst it denotes incapability.  Also, a parking space, an entrance, or a restroom may be “accessible,” but should not be called “handicapped.”

When writing about [or speaking to] people with disabilities, choose words that carry positive, non-judgmental connotations.
Such words to avoid (unless you are a disabled person):  “pitiful”; “deaf and dumb;” “blind as a bat;” “crip / cripple(d);” “invalid;” “afflicted by or afflicted with;” “victim;” the “r” word (retard(ed)), and so on.  

One important point I want to make regarding words/language:  disabled people have the right to call themselves whatever they desire.  If someone wants to refer to themselves as a crippled/crip, disabled, or use disability first language instead of person-first language, DO NOT CORRECT THEM.  It is NOT YOUR PLACE to tell ANY disabled person how they should view themselves or their disability experience.

Words of Wisdom to Able-Bodied Peers & College Professors:

The following are a few personal statements I want to relay to able-bodied college students and professors.  Some may touch on the aforementioned disability etiquette tips, and if they do… that means you need to pay EXTRA attention to them.

You do NOT have the right to know someone’s disability status.

Knowing someone’s disability status is a privilege.  Your desire to be nosy or pique your curiosity are not good reasons for a disabled student to tell their business to you.  No means no, and is a complete sentence – respect it when said.

Not every disabled person wants to share or discuss their disability status.

This relates back to the first point.  Not every disabled person embraces their disabled status, or is comfortable discussing their medical history.  Do not criticize someone who has difficulty in this area – we are all in different stages and phases in this journey, and no one should be shamed or pressured to share when they do not want to.

Again, no means no, and is to be respected.

Do NOT compare someone’s level of functioning or abilities to those you know with the same disability.

Disabled people are like snowflakes – no two are alike, even if they have the same disability.  For example, I have a mild-moderate form of OI (Osteogenesis Imperfecta, better known as brittle bones).  I have encountered those with OI who are predominantly walkers (rarely uses a wheelchair); those who are half and half – can walk and use a wheelchair but may have a preference for one over the other; and those who are complete wheelchair users.  My main “impairments” with OI is of course having brittle bones, along with having moderate hearing loss.  Others OIers can have visual, cardiovascular, and respiratory health conditions that correlates to their OI status.

See how diverse just one disabled condition can be amongst those who have it?  Remember that.

We were not put on this earth to teach you EVERYTHING about the disabled experience, nor can we speak for all disabled people.

There are over 1 billion disabled people worldwide, and over 54 million in America… there is absolutely NO way we can be the sole spokesperson for that many people.

Take the time to learn about the disabled culture to be more informed and a better ally.

This relates to the previous statement.  Everyday I learn something new, and I am a member of this large and incredibly diverse group.  You never truly “stop” learning because everyone’s thoughts and opinions vary in numerous ways.

Watch the language you use, and accept correction if given.

I cannot stress the importance of language enough.  What we are called matters just as much as to how we are treated.

For the professors:  if we require accommodations, RESPECT our needs, and abide by them.

It does not matter if you have to stay longer for that student who requires more time to take tests, or have to switch classrooms because the current location is not easily accessibility – these accommodations are our RIGHTS.  If you have a problem with them, then you may need to do a self-evaluation about why you teach.  Educators, whether K-12 or collegiate, are suppose to be able to teach and influence ALL students; not just the “perfect,” “normal” ones.  Do not embarrass or harass disabled students about their accommodations; that is utterly inappropriate and unprofessional.  Issues/concerns about how to effectively administer such requests should be discussed with your college’s disability services coordinator.

We are just like you – we just have different ways of moving about, communicating, and interacting with our environments.  

Self-explanatory.

Final Thoughts:

These are the takeaways I wanted to highlight for able-bodied college students and professors.  In all honesty, these are insights that ALL able-bodied folks should know.  Articles such as this one creates awareness that will educate those who are uninformed about marginalized groups.  Awareness causes prejudices and ignorance to dwindle, which is what we should all hope will occur when enlightening conversations/discussions are shared.

Call for Action:

To current and former disabled students:  are there any other etiquette tips or advice you would have added to this article?  What would those pointers be?  To able-bodied college students and professors:  were there anything that stood out to you?  If so, what were they?

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of College Scholarships.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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