Whether you are a formal caregiver for a disabled friend or family member, or simply someone who provides informal care on a regular basis you’re likely to find yourself in a situation where you’ll need to educate adults on how to interact with individuals with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act proscribes specific ideas for integrating those with disabilities into the workplace, but many of the concepts can be translated over into family life as well.
There are some key ideas that will help you introduce a disabled family member to friends by limiting the awkwardness and encouraging healthy and open dialog such as responding graciously to requests for help, letting people know when it’s okay to initiate physical contact and helping people understand the basic terminology that is acceptable and not degrading.
Putting People First
The first introduction for your disabled family member or friend can be the most difficult, so the language that you use to make the introduction is critical. Be sure you introduce your loved one as a human first, and separate the individual from the disability. This can apply to physical disabilities as well as those that are less noticeable right off the bat: state “person who uses a wheelchair” instead of more negative terms such as “wheelchair-bound”. Help others understand that wheelchairs are actually liberating — not confining — and that they’re a form of adaptive technology that helps your loved have the freedom that they need to move independently.
Allowing Personal Space
Individuals who are clearly struggling to function do not necessarily need your assistance, and it is important to let other adults know this. We are by nature compassionate beings, and when we see someone struggling we often want to leap into action to bring comfort or to “help”. Whenever possible, it is best to let people know in advance when this support or assistance would be viewed in a positive light and when it could be perceived negatively. Some individuals with a physical disability are proud of their ability to perform functions that the rest of us take for granted such as getting up out of a chair or crossing the room. These small actions to people without a disability can be painful to watch, but remind friends that this could be a large hurdle for someone and allowing them to struggle to succeed on their own is a badge of honor. When in doubt, coach people to ask before offering assistance such as holding a door, pulling out or pushing in a chair or attempting to provide an arm to lean upon.
Addressing individuals with a disability does not have to be stressful for their caregiver or for friends. Encourage open and honest communication and conversation can be a learning experience for both the individual with the disability and others. Encouraging welcoming touches such as handshakes or hugs (as appropriate), and encourage friends to always treat adults as adults even when there is an obvious mental handicap.
Allow others to be thoughtful about things such as pointing out handicapped entrances or walkways without being condescending or apologetic. Asking your friends or family members to act naturally around an individual with a disability can help put everyone at ease, and allow for a more positive experience overall.
When all else fails, having a quick side conversation with friends before they meet your disabled loved one can help keep everything positive and allow for any obvious questions to be answered to spare the feelings of all involved. Encourage understanding and compassion on all sides and know that it is likely all parties will need to offer a little grace to others to ensure that communication stays open and positive — and to eliminate any hurt feelings.