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How to treat a person with a disability in the community?

Communicating with a person with a disability may seem daunting. Many people are afraid of putting a foot wrong and causing offence or embarrassment. These concerns are entirely unnecessary – all you need to do is treat each person with the respect and consideration you would like to receive yourself. We at Inclusion Melbourne have put together some basic pointers to help. While they are useful general guides, remember that every person is different and will have different needs. Always ask the person with a disability if you are unsure how to proceed.

1. Avoid asking questions about a person’s disability

While this may seem interesting to you, in fact it is probably the least interesting thing about them. Focussing on a person’s disability is reductive, and can be fairly boring for the person with a disability. Try asking about what they do in their spare time instead.

2. They are not your inspiration

Try to avoid describing a person as overly courageous, brave or inspirational. While this seems like a compliment, really it seems that you see that person as defined by their disability. To refer to someone simply living a normal life as “brave” implies that you only see people with a disability as inspirational, rather than just real people. It also implies that a disability is a “bad” thing that needs to be survived, which is untrue.

3. Plan

When planning an event or occasion, always consider the requirements different people may have ahead of time. Having the right setting from the start ensures that each person is comfortable and able to communicate effectively. This does not just include large formal events like Christmas parties. It is equally important for impromptu social occasions or less formal gatherings.

4. Don’t patronise

There is no need to change your tone or volume when speaking to a person with a disability, unless requested. Doing so feels patronising, and like someone is talking down to you. The best way to ensure you are respectful is simply to behave as normal, unless you know a specific thing you can do to help communicate.

5. Be patient and Honest

Be patient if a person takes great effort to speak. Wait until they have finished what they are saying to interject or ask questions. If you are still unable to understand, be honest. Ask them to repeat or find another way of communicating, such as writing, drawing or gesturing.

6. Relax

Everyone makes mistakes. If you do, don’t stress – most of the time, an immediate apology is sufficient. Most people are understanding, and appreciate that you are keen to make an effort. Maintain good humour and most importantly, persevere.