Power To Lead - Promote Ability and Inclusion

By Kristine Cichowski, MS

How many of you know someone who lives with a disability or chronic illness? Perhaps they’re someone in your family like a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, sibling, child, or grandchild. Or a neighbor, classmate, friend, or coworker. Americans with disabilities represent the largest minority group in the country. In fact, 56.7 million Americans live with a disability. Contrary to what one might think, many of these people are of working age. 32.5 million Americans with disabilities are 16-64 years old; 5.2 million are children 15 years or younger. 1

People with disabilities represent every age, gender, and ethnic group. Like you, they want to be treated with respect, enjoy life, be productive, and included in home, work, and community activities. This is why the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) is such an important law. The ADA reminds us and ensures that people with disabilities have the right to go to school, go to work, and participate in community activities just like everyone else.

Since the passage of the ADA in 1990, access, inclusion, and equality for people with disabilities have certainly changed for the better. A few areas still exist where we could use a bit of help and growth. Much of this lies in our communication and interpersonal skills.

Share the following communication strategies with your friends, family, classmates, and coworkers. You have the power to lead by example. Promoting ability and inclusion is easier than you think.

When meeting or walking by a person with a disability, instead of worrying about where to look or what to do, smile and say hello. People of all abilities appreciate polite, friendly, and respectful recognition.

Talking around a person or referring to someone in third person language is inconsiderate. As a common courtesy, look and speak directly to the person. This is especially helpful when interacting with someone who has a hearing impairment as it helps identify your facial expressions and makes it easier to lip read. This holds true when communicating with people who may have other health or age-related conditions.

Introduce yourself by name to provide a useful frame of reference. This is particularly helpful for someone with vision impairments or memory problems. It is best not to assume that people know your name, the sound of your voice, or their relation to you, particularly when you are interacting in an uncommon setting.

Whenever possible, position yourself at eye level when communicating with someone who uses a wheelchair or is shorter than you. This minimizes talking down or over someone and sets a more comfortable tone in conversations.

Consider a wheelchair or other adaptive equipment for mobility or communication as a natural extension of a person. Refrain from leaning on or touching the equipment without permission. This also applies to service animals. Acknowledge that all of these are “personal property.” Likewise, when helping someone with a backpack, purse, or wallet, always ask permission before you proceed to open.

There may be instances when a specific type of support is more helpful then others. For example, a person may have sensitivities on a particular limb or require help in a certain way. Rather than assume, first offer assistance then wait to proceed based on the person’s response. This will minimize accidentally harming someone or breaking equipment. Don’t be offended if help is not needed.

Refrain from interrupting, finishing sentences, or talking over a person, especially if they have speech, memory, or other communication difficulties. Likewise, do not pretend to understand. If needed, respectfully ask to repeat information. Listening patiently and being honest is helpful for all parties.

Use neutral language that refers to the person first. Replace the word victim or suffered with survivor or living with. For example, my cousin lives with a spinal cord injury or my father is a Stroke survivor. This helps eliminate negative connotations and reinforces empowerment and independence. People with disabilities share the same hopes and dreams as everyone else. They work, go to school, play, have families, pay taxes, and lead fulfilling and productive lives.

1 United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/people/disability/