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Everything You've Always Wanted to Know (But Been Afraid to Ask) About Interacting with People with Disabilities

The National Organization on Disability reports that more than 54 million Americans have a disability. This information is for anyone who has questions about how to interact with people who have disabilities.

Four Basic Tips for Interacting with People with Disabilities

  • ASK BEFORE YOU HELP. Just because someone has a disability, don't assume he or she needs help. If the setting is accessible, people with physical disabilities can usually get around. Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it. And if he or she does want help, ask how before you act.
  • BE SENSITIVE ABOUT PHYSICAL CONTACT. Some people with physical disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them-even if your intention is to assist-could knock them off balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his or her wheelchair, scooter or cane. People with physical disabilities often consider their equipment part of their personal space.
  • THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK. Always speak directly to the person with a disability, not to his or her companion, aide or sign language interpreter. Talk to him or her as you would with anyone else. Respect his or her privacy. If you ask about his or her disability, they may feel like you only see the disability, not them as a human being.
  • DON'T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS. People with disabilities are the best judge of what they can or cannot do. Don't make decisions for them about participating in any activity.

Terminology Tips

  • Put the person first. Say "person with a disability" rather than "disabled person." Say "people with disabilities" rather than "the disabled." For specific disabilities, saying "person with Tourette syndrome" or "person who has cerebral palsy" is usually a safe bet. Still, individuals have their own preferences. If you are not sure what words to use, ask.
  • Avoid outdated terms like "handicapped" or "crippled." Be aware that many people with disabilities dislike cliché terms like "physically challenged" and "differently abled."
  • Say "wheelchair user," rather than "confined to a wheelchair" or "wheelchair bound." The wheelchair is what enables the person to get around and participate in society; it's liberating, not confining.
  • With any disability, avoid negative, disempowering words, like "victim" or "sufferer." Say "person with AIDS" instead of "AIDS victim" or "person who suffers from AIDS."
  • It's fine to use idiomatic expressions when talking to people with disabilities. For example, saying, "It was good to see you," and "See you later," to a person who is blind is completely acceptable; they use these expressions themselves all the time.
  • Many people who are Deaf communicate with sign language and consider themselves to be members of a cultural and linguistic minority group. They refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital "D," and may be offended by the term "hearing impaired." Others may not object to the term, but in general it is safest to refer to people who have hearing loss but who communicate in spoken language as "hard of hearing" and to people with profound hearing losses as Deaf or deaf.

Interacting with People with Specific Disabilities

People Who Use Wheelchairs or Have Mobility Impairments

  • People who use wheelchairs have different disabilities and varying abilities. Some can use their arms and hands. Some can get out of their wheelchairs and even walk for short distances.
  • Wheelchair users are people, not equipment. The person's wheelchair enables mobility and should be treated like an extension of his or her body.
  • Unless asked, don't push or touch a person's wheelchair; it's part of his or her personal space. If you help someone down a curb without waiting for instructions, you may dump that person out of the chair. You may detach the chair's parts if you lift it by the handles or the footrest.
  • Be aware of wheelchair users' reach limits. Place as many items as possible within their grasp. When talking to a wheelchair user, grab your own chair and sit at his or her level. If that's not possible, stand at a slight distance, so that he or she isn't straining their neck to make eye contact with you.
  • People who use canes or crutches need their arms to balance themselves, so never grab them. People who are mobility-impaired may lean on a door for support as they open it. Pushing the door open from behind or unexpectedly opening the door may cause them to fall. Even pulling out or pushing in a chair may present a problem. Always ask before offering help.
  • Some people have limited use of their hands, wrists or arms. Be prepared to offer assistance with reaching for, grasping or lifting objects, opening doors, and operating vending machines and other equipment.

People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

  • People who are blind know how to orient themselves and get around on the street. They are competent to travel unassisted, though they may use a cane or a guide dog. A person may have a visual impairment that is not obvious. Be prepared to offer assistance-for example in reading-when asked.
  • Identify yourself before you make physical contact with a person who is blind. Tell the person your name-and your role if it's appropriate, such as employee, usher, waiter, receptionist or fellow student. And be sure to introduce the person to others who are in the group, so that he or she is not excluded.
  • People who are blind need their arms for balance, so offer your arm-don't take his or hers-if the person needs to be guided. (However, it is appropriate to guide a blind person's hand to a banister or the back of a chair to help direct him or her to a stairway or a seat.)
  • If the person has a guide dog, walk on the side opposite the dog. As you are walking, describe the setting, noting any obstacles, such as stairs ("up" or "down") or a big crack in the sidewalk. Other hazards include: revolving doors, half-opened filing cabinets or doors, and objects protruding from the wall at head level such as hanging plants or lamps. If you are going to give a warning, be specific. Hollering, "Look out!" does not tell the person if he should stop, run, duck or jump.
  • If you are giving directions, give specific, non-visual information. Rather than say, "Go to your right when you reach the office supplies," which assumes the person knows where the office supplies are, say, "Walk forward to the end of this aisle and make a full right."
  • If you need to leave a person who is blind, inform that person first and let him or her know where the exit is, then leave the person near a wall, table, or some other landmark. The middle of a room will seem like the middle of nowhere to someone who is blind.
  • Don't touch the person's cane or guide dog. The dog is working and needs to concentrate. The cane is part of the individual's personal space. If the person puts the cane down, don't move it. Let the person know if it's in the way.
  • Offer to read written information-such as the menu, merchandise labels or bank statements-to customers who are blind. Count out change so that they know which bills are which.
  • If you serve food to a person who is blind, let that person know where everything is on the plate according to a clock orientation (twelve o'clock is furthest from them, six o'clock is nearest). Remove garnishes and anything that is not edible from the plate. Some patrons may ask you to cut their food; this can be done in the restaurant's kitchen before the meal is served.
  • A person who is visually impaired may need written material in large print. A clear font with appropriate spacing is just as important as the type size. Labels and signs should be clearly lettered in contrasting colors. It is easiest for most people with vision impairments to read bold white letters on black background.
  • Good lighting is important, but it shouldn't be too bright. In fact, very shiny paper or walls can produce a glare that disturbs people's eyes.
  • Keep walkways clear of obstructions. If people who are blind or are visually impaired regularly use your facility as customers or employees, inform them about any physical changes, such as rearranged furniture, equipment or other items that have been moved.

People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

  • American Sign Language (ASL) is an entirely different language from English, with a syntax all its own. Speech reading (lip reading) is difficult for people who are Deaf if their first language is ASL because the majority of sounds in English are formed inside the mouth, and it's hard to speech read a second language.
  • People who are hard of hearing, however, communicate in English. They use some hearing but may rely on amplification and/or seeing the speaker's lips to communicate effectively. There is a range of communication preferences and styles among people with hearing loss that cannot be explained in this brief space. It is helpful to note that the majority of late deafened adults do not communicate with sign language, do use English, and may be candidates for writing and assistive listening devices to help improve communication. People with cochlear implants, like other people with hearing impairments, will usually inform you what works best for them.
  • When the exchange of information is complex-such as during a job interview or doctor's visit or when reporting a crime-the most effective way to communicate with a native signer is through a qualified sign language interpreter. For a simple interaction-such as ordering in a restaurant or registering for a hotel room-writing back and forth is usually okay.
  • Follow the person's cues to find out if he or she prefers sign language, gesturing, writing or speaking. If you have trouble understanding the speech of a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, let that person know.
  • When using a sign-language interpreter, look directly at the person who is deaf, and maintain eye contact to be polite. Talk directly to the person ("What would you like?"), rather than to the interpreter ("Ask her what she'd like.").
  • People who are deaf need to be included in the decision-making process for issues that affect them; don't decide for them.
  • Before speaking to a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, make sure that you get that person's attention. Depending on the situation, you can extend your arm and wave your hand, tap the person on the shoulder, or flicker the lights.
  • Rephrase, rather than repeat, sentences that the person doesn't understand.
  • When talking, face the person. A quiet, well-lit room is most conducive to effective communication. If you are in front of the light source-such as a window-with your back to it, the glare may obscure your face and make it difficult for the person who is hard of hearing to speech read.
  • Speak clearly. Most people who are hard of hearing count on watching people's lips as they speak to help them understand. Avoid chewing gum, smoking or obscuring your mouth with your hand while speaking.
  • There is no need to shout at a person who is deaf or hard of hearing. If the person uses a hearing aid, it will be calibrated to normal voice levels; your shout will just sound distorted.
  • People who are deaf (and some who are hard of hearing or have speech disabilities) make and receive telephone calls with the assistance of a device called a TTY (short for teletypewriter; also called a TDD). A TTY is a small device with a keyboard, a paper printer or a visual display screen and acoustic couplers (for the telephone receiver).

People With Speech Disabilities

  • A person who has had a stroke, is severely hard of hearing, uses a voice prosthesis or has a stammer or other type of speech disability may be difficult to understand.
  • Give the person your full attention. Don't interrupt or finish their sentences. If you have trouble understanding, don't nod. Just ask the person to repeat. In most cases the person won't mind and will appreciate your effort to hear what he or she has to say.
  • If you are not sure whether you have understood, you can repeat for verification.
  • If, after trying, you still cannot understand someone, ask the person to write it down or to suggest another way of facilitating communication.
  • A quiet environment makes communication easier.
  • Don't tease or laugh at a person with a speech disability. The ability to communicate effectively and to be taken seriously is important to all of us.

Hidden Disabilities

  • Not all disabilities are apparent. A person may make a request or act in a way that seems strange to you. That request or behavior may be disability-related. For example, you may give seemingly simple verbal directions to someone, but the person asks you to write the information down. The person may have a learning disability that makes written communication easier than verbal instructions. Or an apparently healthy person may ask to sit, rather than stand, in line. This person may be fatigued from a condition such as cancer, or may be feeling the effects of medication. Even though these disabilities are hidden, they are real. Please respect the person's needs and requests whenever possible.

Psychiatric Disabilities (Mental Illness)

  • People with psychiatric disabilities may at times have difficulty coping with the tasks and interactions of daily life. Their disorder may interfere with their ability to feel, think or relate to others. Most people with psychiatric disabilities are not violent. One of the main obstacles they face is the attitudes that people have about them. Because it is a hidden disability, chances are you will not even realize that the person has a mental health condition.
  • Stress can affect the person's ability to function. Try to keep the pressure of the situation to a minimum.
  • People who have psychiatric disabilities have varying personalities and different ways of coping with their disability. Some may have trouble picking up on social cues; others may be supersensitive. One person may be very high energy, while someone else may appear sluggish. Treat each person as an individual. Ask what will make him most comfortable and respect his needs to the maximum extent possible.
  • In a crisis, stay calm and be supportive as you would with anyone. Ask how you can help, and find out if there is a support person who can be sent for. If appropriate, you might ask if the person has medication that he needs to take.

Mental Retardation

  • People with mental retardation (sometimes referred to as developmental disability) learn slowly. They have a hard time using what they have learned and applying it from one setting or situation to another.
  • Speak to the person in clear sentences, using simple words and concrete-rather than abstract-concepts. Help that person understand a complex idea by breaking it down into smaller parts.
  • Don't use baby talk or talk down to people who have mental retardation. Gauge the pace, complexity, and vocabulary of your speech according to his or hers.
  • Remember that the person is an adult and, unless you are informed otherwise, can make his or her own decisions.
  • It can be difficult for people with mental retardation to make quick decisions. Be patient and allow the person to take his or her time.
  • People with mental retardation rely on routine and on the familiar to manage work and daily living. Be aware that a change in the environment or in a routine may require some attention and a period of adjustment.

Learning Disabilities

  • Learning disabilities are lifelong disorders that interfere with a person's ability to receive, express or process information. Although they have certain limitations, most people with learning disabilities have average or above-average intelligence. You may not realize that the person has a learning disability because he or she functions so well. Or you may be confused about why such a high-functioning person has problems in one aspect of his or her work.
  • People with dyslexia or other reading disabilities have trouble reading written information. Give them verbal explanations and allow extra time for reading.
  • Don't be surprised if you tell someone very simple instructions and he or she requests that you write them down. Because spoken information gets "scrambled" as the person listens, someone who has a learning disability such as auditory processing disorder may need information demonstrated or in writing.
  • Ask the person how you can best relay information. Be direct in your communication. A person with a learning disability may have trouble grasping subtleties.
  • It may be easier for the person to function in a quiet environment without distractions, such as a radio playing or people moving around.

A Final Word

People with disabilities are individuals with families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and problems and joys. While the disability can be an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them. Don't automatically assume that a disability makes someone into a hero or a victim. Treat them as individuals.

Excerpts taken from: Cohen, Judy. "Disability Etiquette: Tips on Interacting With People With Disabilities." United Spinal Association, 2003.
 Mark Zupan
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