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How Do You Do That? Demystifying People With Disabilities


Nearly all employers and human resource professionals are aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Yet, how often do you, your colleagues, or the average individual have contact with someone who is visually impaired/blind, using a wheel chair, or profoundly deaf? When you do, how do you react? Interact? Ignore? Assist? Marvel at their ability to move through their environment living full and productive lives?

What can you do to put yourself and the person with a disability at ease? Well, this is our purpose here. It is not to attempt to answer all your questions. Rather, to discuss appropriate methods for interacting with individuals who are disabled while squelching many myths and misconceptions. You'll learn what to do and not do, techniques and technologies used for employment as well as in daily living.

How many times have you heard the preferred or proper method for interacting with someone with a disability? Probably never, if at all. In fact, the average individual rarely has any contact with someone who is blind, deaf, or mobility impaired. Therefore, you will be exposed to common courtesy rules governing your interactions with these individuals.

How does someone who cannot see a computer monitor or manipulate the keyboard use this most valuable technological tool of the coming century? Techniques of daily living such as setting the alarm clock, cooking on the grill, and the simple task of matching your wardrobe are tasks most of us take for granted. Yet, how would you perform these simple jobs from a wheelchair, without your eyesight, or hearing? You'll learn about specialized tools, adaptive electronic equipment, and techniques used to live a full and productive life.

Communicating ? Putting one another at ease

When you meet or come in contact with an individual who has a disability, don't be ill at ease. If you are uncertain how to assist or interact, always speak directly to the individual. After all, they are the experts! You can never go wrong by asking. The experience will be more pleasant for all by remembering and following some simple points of courtesy.

Mobility Impaired

When conversing with a person who is mobility impaired, speak directly to the individual rather than to their companion. People who use wheelchairs are particularly sensitive to this type of treatment. If your conversation goes on for more than a few minutes or is expected to do so, consider sitting to be "eye-to-eye" while talking. It can be uncomfortable to look straight up for an extended period when seated.

Don't be reluctant to use words like "Walk", "Run", or "Stand" when talking with a mobility-impaired person. Wheelchair users and people who are otherwise mobility impaired use these words, too.

Blind/Visually impaired

As with all people with disabilities, don't ask their spouse or companion what they may want. Speak directly to the individual ? just as you would anyone else in a similar situation. It isn't necessary to raise your voice or address them in a child-like manner.

Many blind people have excellent voice recognition. However, just as a sighted person may remember a face, yet forget a name, the same can occur with voices. Always introduce yourself by name? "Hi Mary! It's Fred!" This simple courtesy will avoid embarrassment for both parties. On a similar note, it's nice to know who's in the room with you. Please speak when you enter and exit. It's helpful if others with you are introduced. Additional information is also beneficial such as knowing if there are children, dogs, or cats in the room.

Hearing Impaired

Hearing Impairment is usually divided into two basic groups: the deaf and the hard of hearing. Individuals who are deaf fall into one of two categories - cultural or oral. Those persons who primarily rely on sign language for communicating are in the cultural category. In contrast, people whose preferred method of communicating is lip reading or speech reading are in the oral category.

You may have noticed that the speaking voices of people who are deaf can often sound different from the voice of someone who has normal hearing. Without the ability to hear their own voice as well as that of others, modulating tones are difficult for someone with a hearing impairment. If you cannot clearly understand a person's speaking voice, do not hide it. Admit that you are having difficulty and use pen and paper if necessary.

On the other hand, many hard of hearing people have trouble discriminating between words with similar sounds. Just as some words may sound alike, they can have very different meanings. For example, "sale" and "sail" have identical sounds, but totally different meanings. While "pen", "men", and "bend" are not close in meaning, they can sound the same to a hard of hearing individual. Thus, comprehending your message requires serious concentration.

If you are familiar with American Sign Language (ASL), by all means use it. Those you are communicating with will be most appreciative. Deaf/blind individuals can spell out words that do not have a given sign by using a technique known as "Finger Spelling".

Mobility ? Moving THROUGH YOUR environment safely

People with disabilities want to be treated the same as anyone else. Never rush up and startle someone with a disability by grabbing him or her. Your best approach is to assume he or she is independent. If the individual is in need of assistance, they will ask for help. You will never go wrong by asking first, rather than making assumptions!

You are most likely familiar with dogs used as guides by blind individuals. However, a service dog assists some mobility-impaired people. Remember? interaction with the service animal is permissible only with the expressed permission of the handler.

Mobility Impaired

There are many people who use a wheelchair or motorized scooter to get from point A to point B; many other mobility-impaired people use crutches, canes, leg braces and/or walkers. If you should observe someone using one of these devices approach an entrance to a building, you may wish to offer assistance. DO NOT automatically rush to open the door at the instant you see someone approaching in a wheelchair, using crutches or a walker. Rather, calmly walk to the door and offer assistance allowing the individual to accept or reject the offer. DO NOT be insistent, and DO NOT wait until the person is about to fall before offering your help.

Be aware of slippery floors and ramps, which can cause these devices to easily lose traction and slide on wet surfaces. A service dog assists some mobility-impaired people. These animals have full access to businesses and all public places. They are working animals, not pets. Distractions such as petting, whistling, clicking, and even establishing eye contact are not acceptable.

Blind/visually Impaired

Three (3) basic mobility options are available to blind or visually impaired travelers - sighted guide, white mobility cane, or a dog guide. Combinations of the last two are also commonly used in specific situations.

When walking with someone visually impaired, don't grab his or her arm. Allow them to take yours grasping gently at your elbow. In this manner, they will keep a half step behind you. Your body movement will communicate information about the travel environment. Following along with you in this manner, curbs and steps can be easily negotiated. It is very helpful if you alert your traveling companion to these changes as well as announcing if an Entry/Exit door is being held open. This avoids confusion and embarrassment for all.

The use of a mobility cane is the first major step to travel independence for a blind person. Utilizing all available sensory input (smell, sound, and touch), the traveler has a greater opportunity for proper orientation to their environment. Orientation and Mobility Specialists teach techniques for proper use of a white mobility cane. This occupation requires a Masters degree from a university. Governmental agencies, rehabilitation centers, schools for the blind, and some public school systems offer this training.

For many people a dog guide brings a great sense of independence. Hundreds of people who are blind and visually impaired are trained with well disciplined and dedicated dogs as guides each year. It is important that all people know something about the way a dog guide team works and how to act when encountering one of these guides.

If a person who is using a dog appears to be in need of some assistance, approach him or her on their right side. The dog guide will usually be on the left. Do not touch or take the person by the arm without first asking if you can assist them. Under no circumstances, should a person take hold of the dog guide or the harness, this will confuse the dog and startle the individual. If assistance is accepted, offer your left elbow by brushing it against their arm as explained in the sighted guide technique.

In some instances, the person may choose not to make use of the sighted guide system. Instead, they may instruct the dog to "Follow" you. (Since experience with this command varies, so does the quality of the team's performance.) If this is the case, walk ahead of them at a normal speed letting the person know when they are approaching turns, doorways, stairs, and drop-offs. If the person is seeking assistance for a street crossing, walk with them completely across the street and up on the opposite curb. The dog guide will again resume its duties once on the sidewalk.

The most common mistake many people make is touching, calling, clicking, or whistling to a working dog. Absolutely Do Not pet or distract a dog guide when it is in harness or when working. Always interact with the person and not the dog.

Hearing Impaired

Moving around in their environment presents some problems for deaf and hearing-impaired people. Sounds and movements out of their field of vision can create hazards. They may not be aware of traffic and emergency vehicles approaching from behind. Hearing aids will amplify these sounds, but direction may be difficult due to distortion.

Tools & Technology ? Enhancing quality of life

Many of the chores and routine tasks associated with daily living can be frustrating to individuals with disabilities. Thankfully, specialized tools, equipment, and devices have been developed to help alleviate this frustration and enhance the quality of life with increased independence. Local agencies, rehabilitation centers, and libraries are excellent sources for more information. However, one of our best resources is the Internet. Online catalogues provide details about each item in stock while explaining its function.

Mobility Impaired

When we think of a person with a mobility impairment most of us immediately envision someone in a wheelchair. For sure, this is the most common, but mobility impairment involves much more than that. While there are many people using wheelchairs or motorized scooters, other impairments may necessitate the use of tools or devices such as crutches, canes, leg braces and/or walkers.

Technology is providing assistance in ways other than mobility devices. Some individuals who are unable to manipulate a computer keyboard now rely on voice recognition software to operate personal computers and other tools to make their lives easier and more productive.

Blind/visually Impaired

Electronics have opened up a new world of independence for visually impaired people living alone. Talking devices like clocks, thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, and computers have brought blind people into the 21st Century.

In fact, computers with screen reading software have opened new areas of employment never considered viable for workers with vision difficulty. Scanners convert printed text into voice output or Braille on a refreshable display. Documents can be printed in text or Braille, or transmitted electronically for co-workers. Surfing the net, reading and writing email, as well as managing personal and business finances are now nearly as easy for the blind as it is for the sighted.

To be sure, there are many challenges. Yet, progressive minded technicians are moving forward with improvements at a rapid rate. Micrometers, levels, and tape measures are available which emit electronic tones or have tactile markings. With specialized training, workers who are blind operate equipment like table saws, stamping machines, and manufacturing tools. Unfortunately, not enough of these individuals are working in mainstream jobs usually due to unfounded fears over safety issues.

Hearing Impaired

Frequently, people think a hearing aid is a "cure-all". It is not. These devices do not function like normal hearing. Rather, they amplify sounds. A hearing aid mainly helps to make speech clearer and understandable at a shorter range. This will help avoid raising your voice while communicating. Unfortunately, background noises are more amplified and cause more distraction than it would to a person with normal hearing. Amplification devices are available for Telephones & other office equipment. TDD equipment allows total deaf individuals the ability to communicate via the telephone. Lights can be installed on devices to signal when a tone is present. Examples might be alarm clocks, doorbells, and telephones.


It is incumbent upon us to adhere to and follow the simple rules and guidelines presented here. Remember, people with disabilities are people just like you. They don't want pity or condescending treatment. Their sense of smell, touch, or hearing did not improve when they lost their vision. They simply rely on them more and may get more information through those senses than you do.

The development of specialized tools and devices has opened up a new world of independent living for people with mobility, vision, and hearing impairments. Simple jobs and ordinary task no longer require an assistant. Electronic devices and computers have broaden employment opportunities and enhanced quality of life for many.

It is important for you to know the correct procedure to offer assistance while not interfering with their independence.

Finally, remember that while individuals with disabilities appreciate attention the way we all do, he or she wants their friends, and others, to act natural with them and not overly solicitous. Most will discuss their disability with you if you're curious, but it's an old story to them. They have as many other interests as you do.

Copyright 2001 - All Rights Reserved

In 1972, Larry C. Colbert's life changed suddenly and dramatically. He was diagnosed with retinitus pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, and learned he would soon be blind. But, as Larry's eyesight gradually faded, his insight deepened. Now he's a motivational speaker who travels the world sharing humorous stories about dealing with change, overcoming adversity, and promoting diversity.

In his first book, "Insights from an out-of-sight guy", Colbert shares the poignant story of his deep personal struggle with blindness, and the fear that kept him from embracing change. With remarkably frank dialog, and powerful and humorous examples from the best of his keynote speeches, Insights reveals Colbert's intimate 30-year process of coming to "see" self, and provides practical and meaningful help for learning to cope with constant change, as well as managing the ideas, emotions, and attitudes that affect us all.


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