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When You Meet a Person with a Disability

Many able-bodied people do not know how to approach and communicate with a person who has a disability.  If you fit this description, you are not alone.  If this does not apply to you, please read on anyway – there may be some suggestions you may be able to use.

People with disabilities face two major kinds of barriers on a daily basis.  The first barrier is physical barriers presented by architectural limitations, the need to use special equipment (wheelchair, cane, etc.), or the need for personal attendants (i.e., help in the cafeteria with their food tray).  These barriers do cause a challenge for the individual to conquer, but usually are done with some type of accommodation.

The second barrier is invisible and much more challenging for the individual to overcome. It is the attitudinal barrier that able-bodied people have toward the person with a disability.  This barrier limits the individual because society fails to allow the individual with a disability to fully participate and show their abilities.  The person with a disability is isolated.  Having a disability does not mean the person is “sick,” “crippled,” or unable to do a certain task to reach a goal (i.e., attend college, seek competitive employment).  The person with a disability is a person first and their disability is secondary.  In most ways, the individual with a disability lives just like everyone else.  They have families, go shopping, enjoy recreational activities, need to work to pay their bills, enjoy good food and friends just like you.  Amazing similarities?  A person with a disability wants to be treated just like we all would like – with respect.

Some disabilities do require a certain level of dependency on other persons that may assist them.  If the person with a disability needs assistance, they will generally ask; however, this should not prevent you from offering assistance if you feel comfortable doing so.  Once you have offered your assistance, always wait for exact instructions from the person with a disability or they may decline your offer.  Don’t be hurt or offended if your offer to help is turned down.  The following information should assist you in feeling more comfortable when meeting a person who has a disability.  The best source for how to help is the individual themselves, so just ask them.  I am sure you will be surprised how easy it can be!

Meeting a Blind Person

Being legally blind includes both individuals who are totally blind and those who have vision limitations.  If a person who is blind appears to need help, identify yourself and let the person know you are there (by a light touch on their arm).  Do not be afraid to use words like “see” and “look.”  Blind people use these words in everyday conversations because there are simply no other words that can be substituted for them.

Not all blind people use a walking cane or guide dog, or are able to read braille.

Be prepared to help a blind person read signs or give directions.  When giving directions, avoid terms such as “turn this way” or “turn over there.”

To lead a person who is blind, allow the person to take your arm and follow the motion of your body.  Tell them when a curb, stairs, etc. are going to be navigated.  When assisting them to a chair, place their hand on the chair so they will be able to seat themselves.

If a person who is blind is using a guide dog, remember the dog is working and should not be distracted.  The dog is responsible for their master’s safety.  Do not pet or feed the dog unless you have first asked permission from the dog’s master.

Meeting a Person Who Uses a Wheelchair

Be aware of physical barriers that may block access for a person who uses a wheelchair.  Small steps, width of door openings and furniture in the room, may block a person’s passage.  No one is “confined to a wheel chair.”  People using wheelchairs use words like “run” and “walk.”

When talking for an extended period of time with a person in a wheelchair, it would be better to sit at their eye level to avoid discomfort for them having to look up at you.  Treat the person’s wheelchair as part of their body and refrain from leaning on it.  Before assisting a person in a wheelchair, ask if they need your help.  Pushing their chair without permission may not be appreciated.

Meeting a Person Who is Deaf or Hearing Impaired

To gain a deaf person’s attention, tap them on the shoulder or wave a hand to gain visual contact.  Look directly at the person while speaking, standing directly in front of them if possible.  Do not obscure your mouth – the person may be trying to read your lips.  Speak directly to the deaf person, not their interpreter.  Be aware of body language and facial expressions that may help you in getting your message to them.  Use written language if needed.

Some deaf people choose to speak.  If you are unable to understand them, ask the person to repeat themselves or write it down.

When two people are using sign language, do not be disrespectful and walk between them.  This would be like interrupting their conversation by blocking their view of one another.  If you know sign language, attempt to use it – your attempt will be welcome.

Meeting a Speech Impaired Person

Allow the person time to speak their thoughts.  Do not interrupt them or try to finish their sentence.  If you do not understand what they have said, ask the individual to repeat themselves.  A person who has a speech impairment may use other methods of communication such as sign language, written notes, or a  augmentive device.  Be patient and encourage communication.