How to Interact With People With Disabilities

Relax, and remember the Golden Rule.

Relax, and remember the Golden Rule

You and your friend are at a restaurant, and the waiter asks your friend what she'd like to eat. And then the waiter asks your friend what you'd like to eat, too.

Are you invisible? Perhaps you're perceived to be incapable of making the decision, or articulating it. Or maybe, for some reason, the waiter feels fine talking to your friend, but uncomfortable talking to you. This perplexing situation is not so uncommon for some people living with disabilities. "I usually say, 'Excuse me, will you ask me the question, please?'" says Ryan McGraw, a 30-year-old yoga teacher with cerebral palsy. "It's dehumanizing."

So why would someone not address McGraw, who talks a little slower and has impaired movement and coordination?

"When people can't relax, they're fearful, and they simply choose not to interact with people with disabilities," says Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability. "And that's so unfortunate because it only perpetuates the stereotypes and fears that people have."

[Read: Yoga with Cerebral Palsy: Ryan McGraw's Story.]

McGraw speculates that some people get nervous talking to him or don't engage because they simply fear the unknown. Maybe they've never met anyone like him before. "I don't think that's bad or wrong," he says. "It's normal human response." But interacting with people with disabilities doesn't need to be nerve-racking.

Ryan Gambrell, a project manager in San Diego who is 4 feet 2 inches tall, points out, "I think even if you left a blank line at the end of your title and asked 'How to Interact With People,' you could apply two things – respect and sincerity – to just about anyone, and they would appreciate you for it."

Think the Golden Rule and basic communication skills – eye contact, respect for personal space and talking to adults like adults. Rethink, perhaps, some vocabulary. Practice person-first language: A person with autism or a person who is blind, instead of an autistic person or blind person. (Check out a list of person-first examples here.) And while it fits the person-first structure, even "people with disabilities," is an imperfect phrase, as there are many individuals with specific kinds of abilities and disabilities. Correct more subtle normative terms, too, such as "typical," "healthy" and "able-bodied."

[Read: An All-Out Assault on Autism.]

"Person-first is not just an etiquette rule or the politically correct thing to do; it comes from a way of thinking about the person," Glazer says. One of her sons, Jacob, is 21 years old and has hydrocephalus, which means excess fluid has accumulated in his brain. "We have to overcome language that isn't person-first, because when someone calls my son a hydrocephalic, that's who he is to them. They're going to treat him differently," Glazer says. Jacob has cognitive disabilities, and people talk slowly to him like he's a small child, but his mother says he's quite clever and intelligent. "[People] tell me how cute his is – how sweet he is, but a 21 year old would rather be clever than cute" she says.

This is familiar territory for McGraw, who remembers how when he was a Boy Scout as a teenager, his peers often talked to him as if he was 5 years old. People change their tone when talking to Sarah Schaffer, too. Although she's 18 years old and preparing to attend college next month, people sometimes talk to her in a "weird, high-pitched" voice because she has Down syndrome. "It really annoys me when people act weird around me," she says. "I'd rather they talk to me like anybody else."

[Read: Yoga With Down Syndrome: Sarah Schaffer's Story.]

Patricia Wright, national director of autism services at Easter Seals, a nonprofit that provides services to help children and adults with disabilities, shares Schaffer's sentiment. "Think: How would I interact with anybody else," she says. "I think there's anxiety that comes from this perception that there's some magic way you're supposed to interact with someone. There isn't … In the same way we respect humans, we respect humans with disabilities."