Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Just The Way You Are - Disability Etiquette
Quite often, I am approached in public about Christian. People ask questions and they want to know more about him, about his condition, and about his abilities. Sometimes when I get approached, people apologize for being intrusive, or they ask me if I mind them asking questions. And many times, when young children approach Christian, they ask questions that make their parents feel very uncomfortable! I have received many apologies from embarrassed parents. But honestly, I don’t mind.
Most adults who ask do so because they are concerned, because they see an innocent little baby, and I think they just want to know that he is ok. Once I tell them how healthy he is, and they see him smile, the questions turn into conversations about my amazing son! And children, well, they are just being kids! Curious, intrigued, and confused. One little girl, no older than three, saw Christian one day and walked right up to me and said “What happen?” I have done this plenty of times, so I didn’t have to think about my reply, “He was born like this, Sweetie.” So then she asks, “He a baby?” And I explained that yes, he was a baby, he was my son. Then she pointed at his eyes and said, “I no like that!” Her mom’s eyes got big and her face turned beet red. I said, “No? Me either! It’s not fun!” and I smiled at her. That was all the information she needed. She walked away and began playing.
Many people feel uncomfortable asking questions about Christian or talking to him when they first meet him. Many will look, but avoid conversation at all costs. And in all honesty, it is just because they don’t want to hurt my feelings or they just don’t know what to say. I want others to understand that approaching me is exactly the same as approaching any other mom out there who has her baby in tow. I am a proud mama, I love my son, and I will be glad to share him with anyone who wants to know more about him!
Tndisability.org has a piece on its website about “Disability Etiquette.” The whole concept is to teach others how to approach someone with a disability. Someone with a disability does not want to excluded from life because others are afraid, so this site gives suggestions on how to shake that uneasy feeling that so many people get when they are around a person with a disability.
The very first page reads, “Remember: a person with a disability is a person with feelings. Treat him or her as you would want to be treated, and then let common sense and friendship break down any barriers you may encounter.”
The site offers suggestions on how to approach persons with all different types of disabilities, and I urge everyone to read each one, but for sake of space, I want to share with you the standards they put out that apply to all.
1. A handshake is not a standard greeting for everyone. When in doubt, ask! A smile and a spoken greeting can go a long way! Some people may not be physically able to shake your hand, or they may just be uncomfortable with it.
2. Speak directly to the person with the disability. Sometimes we feel more comfortable talking to those accompanying him or her. But it is ok to speak to the person. I enjoy when people talk to Christian. It makes me feel like they recognize him as a person, and I am sure others would feel the same.
3. Don’t mention the person’s disability unless they bring it up first. I’m kind of torn on this one. I don’t mind when people bring it up to me, but there is a proper way to do it. “What’s wrong with your kid?” is obviously not appropriate, but when it doubt, this rule is probably the best way to go.
4. Treat adults as adults. I will add to this, treat children as children, and don’t treat anyone differently!
5. Be patient and give someone your undivided attention. This is important to someone who may speak slowly or with great effort.
6. Don’t pretend that you understand what the person is saying if you don’t. Simply ask them to repeat or rephrase. I know a mother whose son speaks sign language. He speaks some as he signs but he is hard to understand. She told me once that most people just laugh and kind of “agree” with whatever he says because they can’t understand him. Not only does it aggravate her, but she informed me that her son thought people who did that were just flat out being dumb!
7. It is ok to use common expressions like “See you soon” or “I’d better run along.” When Christian was first born, a good friend of mine from another state called me to ask about Christian and she asked what color Christian’s eyes were. Immediately she realized what she had said and started apologizing. She was almost in tears because she was afraid that she had upset me, because we don’t know what color Christian’s eyes would be. But it didn’t offend me. I know that it is just one of those things that you ask when a baby is born, and it doesn’t bother me. It also doesn’t bother me when people say things like, “Christian! Look here!” or play peek-a-boo with him. He actually likes playing peek-a-boo!
8. Relax! We all make mistakes. Apologize if you forget some courtesy. Have a sense of humor and a willingness to communicate.
There may always be that one person who gets upset no matter what you say, but I promise you, follow these guidelines and you will be fine. And by all means, approach a person with a disability! Talk to them. Treat them as what they are: a human being, someone worth getting to know, and a creation of the Almighty.