How to Interact With People With Disabilities

Relax, and remember the Golden Rule.

Relax, and remember the Golden Rule

And if you're not sure about what to do in specific situations – Does that woman who is blind need me to open the door? Should I crouch down when talking to this person using a wheelchair? Does this man in the buffet line with prosthetic hands need help? – ask. Don't jump into hero mode, and don't silently dwell on the situation without taking action. Just as you would with any other person who looks like she could use a hand – ask. If the person accepts – great. If the person says, "No, I'm good," then don't insist on helping. He or she might have an approach for completing the action that's different than yours, and that way might take a little longer, but trust that he or she has it under control.

There are plenty other situational etiquette rules to note – don't lean on someone's wheelchair; identify yourself when speaking to someone who is visually impaired; be patient with someone who has difficulty speaking – and those tips can be found on the websites of Easter Seals and the Department of Labor, among other places. But just about every tip and rule comes down to this: Treat everyone, no matter their perceived abilities and disabilities, with respect.

For the people you interact with who have disabilities, understand that their abilities and disabilities are just part of their lives. Everyone has things they can and cannot do and lives their life accordingly. It may be hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone with a visual impairment, or someone with a developmental disability, and maybe you could only imagine that it'd be really tough. And so it may be tempting to label people with disabilities who are seemingly productive and successful as "inspirational" or "heroic." While these words are certainly kind and likely come from a good place, use caution. To focus on how someone is "overcoming" a disability (overcoming still being an odd, but common word choice, as a disability is simply part of that person's life) is still focusing specifically on his or her disability instead of the person as a whole.

[Read: Yoga as a Paraplegic: Howie Sanborn's Story.]

McGraw, for example, is a yoga instructor. "If that makes people feel inspired to try something new, it can be a positive thing," he says, but "If I'm riding the bus, and you're another passenger, I shouldn't be inspiring you."

About one in five people in the United States has a disability. These are neighbors, co-workers and friends just doing their day-to-day routines. As the New York State Education Department points out on its website, "People with disabilities are the nation's largest minority, and the only one that any person can join at any time."

"It's just life," Glazer says, so relax.

"When we relax, we can start talking to them as an equal person," she says. Then it starts coming much more naturally, and you can start having conversations, listening to the individual and treating people with the same dignity and respect and courtesy that you want to be treated with."