I’m afraid of offending a disabled person – how do I avoid that?
Gary: Don’t stare. Speak directly to the person, not through a companion. Avoid using a patronising tone of voice, as if speaking to a child. Speak to someone the way you’d like to be spoken to.
Paul: Treat the individual just like anyone else. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Mel: First of all, just relax! We’re all human after all, and some of us make mistakes. It’d take a hell of a lot to offend me. The only way someone could is if they made a very nasty comment about my disability. I went out for drinks one night with a friend from university and he insisted on getting some chips after the pubs had closed. When we were on our way to the chippy we went past a group of lads and one of them shouted, ‘Oi, look, two crips together, how cute’. Not very nice! We just carried on and ignored them. I didn’t think it was worth the aggro.
David: Just use your common sense. Be relaxed and treat the individual with respect and courtesy. Listen to them. Offer assistance but don’t insist or be offended if your offer isn’t accepted. If you’re not sure, please ask.
What are the correct terms to use when talking about disability?
Mel: “I’m personally not too worried about ‘correct terms’, but I call myself a ‘wheelchair user’ and ‘hearing impaired’, because most people think that being deaf means you can’t hear at all. If you’re hard of hearing, some people seem to think that all they need to do is shout at you to make themselves heard! This includes people I work with.
Paul: “Avoid anything potentially offensive such as ‘shorty’ or ‘spaz’. If in doubt, ask! Everyone is different and what offends one person will not offend another.”
David: “The language used to talk about disability affects the way society views disabled people. The wrong language can be humiliating and rude. Some older terminology is sometimes still heard but it’s offensive and should never be used. Don’t use terms like ‘deaf and dumb, ‘stone deaf’, ‘deaf as a post’ or ‘handicapped’.”
Enhance the UK team: “Many disabled people refer to each other as ‘cripples’, ‘deafies’, ‘blindies’ etc. Does this mean able-bodied people can do the same? The answer, I’m afraid, is no! I know this seems very unfair but being able to be ‘un-PC’ about disability is one of the advantages to having a disability!”
What can disabled people still do?
Mel: “What can’t we do? Not much! I think most disabled people are more active than a lot of able-bodied people.”
David: “Anything and everything.”
Enhance the UK team: “There’s very little now that disabled people can’t do. Often the problem is that they’re not given the opportunity.
What counts as discrimination?
Gary: “The law has its own definition, but it’s really about the intention to put barriers in someone’s way based on their disability. Social Model and all that!”
Mel: “This is a tough one because I think that different people have very different views on what discrimination is. I personally feel that discrimination is when I’m treated less favourably because of my disability, or when I’m stopped from doing some activity because someone feels I’d be unable to do it because of my disability – even though they don’t know me or understand how I cope with my disability.
“I also think it’s discrimination when I’m put in a box labelled ‘disabled’ and people think this automatically means I’m always in pain or I don’t lead a full and happy life! It’s like saying all old people are frail; not true!”
David: “Disability discrimination is illegal. All disabled people have the right to access to information and education. They have rights to health and safety. Most sensory impaired people encounter discrimination at some point in their lives.”
Enhance the UK team: “As stated above, the Disability Discrimination Act has its own definition of discrimination, but this law is broken every day – it’s just that not many people report it.”
Should I talk slowly to deaf people?
Mel: “No! Please don’t. Use a normal tone and speed, but be clear. Look directly at the person you’re talking to, so they can lip read, and don’t SHOUT! This is my pet hate and it happens all the time. When someone shouts all they’re doing is distorting the sound of their voice, which then makes it more difficult to hear.
“Also, don’t just assume that because someone has hearing aids, they can hear OK. They do help a lot, but they’ll never be the same as being able to hear with your own ears.”
David: “As a general rule you should:
- Behave naturally and respectfully, as you would to any other person
- Talk slightly slower, but don’t over-exaggerate your lips
- Talk to the deaf person, not their family/friends
- Avoid making assumptions about a person’s disability or their needs
- Take care not to make inappropriate personal remarks.”
Enhance the UK team: “It’s much harder to read a person’s lip pattern if they’re changing their natural shape of the word by talking s-l-o-w-l-y. Try and speak normally, but keep your hands away from your lips. Also, don’t stand with a window behind you as this can throw a shadow over your face, making it harder to lip read.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask the person if they’d like you to slow down. It’s OK to ask!”
Should I offer to lead a blind person?
Gary: “Why not? Definitely ask whether the person wants any help.”
Paul: “Yes, offer assistance. And don’t be scared about them bumping into things; it’s an occupational hazard.”
Mel: “I know some blind people who’re more than happy to have some help. Just don’t grab someone without asking first. And if you do help, talk to the person you’re helping. Ask them where they want to go and what direction they’d like to face. Don’t leave them somewhere and walk off! Tell them where they’ve stopped.”
David: “Listen to the individual. Offer assistance but don’t insist or be offended if your offer isn’t accepted.”
Enhance the UK team: “As everyone else has said, ask the person. They’ll tell you ‘Yes, please’ or ‘No, thank you!’.
Should I offer to push a wheelchair?
Gary: “If you believe it’d be of benefit, ask whether you can help in any way.”
Mel: “Yes that’s fine, but again don’t just grab hold of someone’s wheelchair! You could jolt them, which for me personally isn’t a good idea! The best help I’ve had has been when someone has asked how I liked to be pushed. It makes a big difference to me when someone’s kind enough to offer their help. There are often curbs that are a real pain to cross and I’m always thankful when someone offers to push!”
Enhance the UK team: “Use your common sense. If you can see someone is fit and strong and fully able to push themselves, then there’s no need to ask. If you see someone who could clearly do with a hand, then ask them.”
What types of disability are there?
Mel: “I’ve brittle bone disease, which is a very rare genetic condition that affects the bones all over my body. They’re very fragile and can break with very little pressure because of a lack of collagen. My bones can’t bend like most people’s do under slight pressure; they’ll just break. I’ve had about 180 fractures so far, although I’ve lost count of the true number.
“My brittle bones have also affected my middle ear bones and I’ve been hearing impaired since birth. Despite two operations, I have to wear hearing aids in both ears. I can walk indoors but I need to use a wheelchair at work and when I’m out and about. I can’t bend or twist because my back is weak. I’ve a hoist in the back of my car that can lift my wheelchair in and out of the boot.”
Gary: “The main categories of disability are sensory, physical, learning and cognitive.”
David: “Too many to mention. In brief, the Disability Discrimination Act defines a disability as ‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial, adverse and long-term effect on the ability of the person to carry out normal day-to-day activities’.”
Can disabled people have sex?
Mel: Yes, like anyone else. Sex can be fulfilling in many ways, although some disabled people may need assistance.
Gary: Yes please! We just have to be more… creative!
Paul: It depends on the disability. Actually, some disabled people may not be able to have sex, but this won’t prevent them having the same sexual desires as able-bodied people.
Enhance the UK team: Disabled people? Sex? Well I never!
Seriously, we’re all human beings with needs and desires. Not all disabled people can have physically penetrative sex, but this doesn’t mean they don’t want to be sexual or sexy. For more information on this topic take a look at our Sex and Disability page.
Am I allowed to mention a person’s disability?
Gary: Depends on the relevance and context.
Paul: Everyone’s different; some people don’t wish to talk about their disability, and others are fine with it. It depends on the individual and how long they’ve been living with their disability. Rule of thumb: wait for them to bring it up.
Mel: I personally don’t mind if people do; it’s a part of me and has helped to shape the person I am today. But saying that, there are also other things in my life that are just as important, so I don’t like to dwell on my disability.
David: Remember people with disabilities are people just like you. They don’t want pity or condescending treatment. While someone who’s disabled probably appreciates attention, the way we all do, he or she also wants their friends, and others, to act naturally. Don’t think of the person as just a ‘disabled person’ – rather, he or she is a person who happens to be disabled!
Enhance the UK team: Of course you’re allowed, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to like it! You may ask yourself, why do I feel the need to mention this person’s disability? Is it relevant? Use your common sense and if it comes up naturally in conversation then that’s fine – to ignore it then would appear rude, if not a little odd!
Can I ask questions about a person’s disability?
Paul: A disability is a very personal thing for some people; don’t assume it’s an open book. Obviously, if you’re friends with the individual then your relationship will dictate what is acceptable.
Mel: You can ask me; I don’t mind at all. I think it’s a good idea because it helps to educate people. I’ve had mums come up to me in the past to ask me questions about my disability because their son/daughter wants to know why I’m in a wheelchair. I try to keep things simple and to the point. I’d far rather people ask questions than stare at me in the street. So go ahead and ask.
David: Most disabled people will discuss their physical or sensory impairment with you if you’re curious.
Enhance the UK team: Everyone’s different and it very much depends on the circumstances. It can be very personal and it’s like asking someone if they’re ‘gay or straight’ when the subject of sexual preference hasn’t even come up. If disability comes up in conversation, ask the person you’re talking to if they mind you asking – they’ll tell you yes or no.
How do I know what the right terms for different disabilities are? They seem to be changing all the time!
Gary: It depends how well you know your audience. Some people might say ‘people with disabilities’ rather than ‘disabled people’. However, the movement has claimed the word ‘disabled’ back. Don’t get too hung up on it!
Paul: Depends on their disability, but assume nothing.
Enhance the UK team: This is a difficult question to answer as the terms do change all the time. Most disabled people don’t worry too much about this issue, as long as the non-disabled person shows they want to understand the disability in question. Don’t be afraid to ask the person with the disability how they’d like to be referred to; they’ll be sure to tell you.