In honor of National Etiquette Week, I’d like to talke a litle bit about disability-related etiquette.
There are two basic rules:
1) Treat a person with a disability like a PERSON
2) Offer assistance, don’t insist
There tend to be two major physical etiquette problems we run into as PWDs. The first is people invading our space. You do not touch a wheelchair, cane, crutch, service dog, or other mobility device. Those are all considered part of the body of the person using them. To touch my crutch is to touch me. To grab the handles of a wheelchair is to grab the person in it. People in wheelchairs and people with service dogs tend to have the greatest problem with this. For some reason, a great many people assume that someone who is in a wheelchair naturally wants to be pushed. For people who self-push, this is highly offensive – it’s like someone suddenly picking you up and carrying you because they don’t think you should be walking around. Even for people who don’t self-push, it’s the height of rudeness – they have someone they want pushing them around, and unless you are that someone, you shouldn’t be touching them unless they ask!
It is unfortunately not uncommon for people to just decide to move someone in a wheelchair because they want to get around them. I can’t tell you the number of stories I’ve heard about people being moved in shops because someone wants to get at the shelves next to them – often exactly where the person in the wheelchair is browsing!
People also invade the space of persons with disabilities. Again, this is the worst when one is in a wheelchair – people stepping right over you, or moving so close their rear is in your face instead of asking you to let them by. Strangely enough, people in wheelchairs are no more fond of having someone’s ass in their face than anyone else is. I also have problems with people walking into me or my crutches. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had someone kick my crutch so that it went out from under me, or bump my arm as I’m walking.
Right, so having covered the gross physical violations of space, let’s talk about the rest.
Opening doors: everyone seems to think that opening doors for a person with a disability is enormously helpful. For most of us, it isn’t – it means you’ll be standing in part of the door space, which makes it difficult for a wheelchair to get through. For me, it’s very helpful, but I know that for most people, it isn’t. A person in a wheelchair has a routine on how they get through doorways, and you don’t help them by interrupting that.
Transactions: strangely enough, we don’t like it when we buy something and our change or reciept is handed to someone with us. Whether it’s a person in a ‘chair or a person with crutches, guess what – we like having our credit card handed back to US! If we’re the one making the purchase, please remember who you’re having the transaction with and act like it.
Some language things: it’s okay to say ‘See you later!’ or ‘Do you see what I mean?’ to someone who is blind. They’re idioms, and they aren’t offensive. Now, some of the big faux pas – a person is NEVER ‘confined’ to a wheelchair, they use one. Use person-first language to describe us – a person with a disability (PWD), not a disabled person. A person who is deaf, not a deaf person. So on. It should go without saying, but people do this shit: we are not ‘it’, we hate when you ask someone with us about us instead of asking US, and most of us don’t like being asked ‘what happened?’
Don’t expect us to educate you. We may not be in the mood to. I don’t have any more obligation to educate you about life with a disability or disability theory than a woman has to educate about feminist issues, or a person of color about race issues. I may CHOOSE to – and in fact, that’s a big part of this blog – but I don’t HAVE to. The fact that I answer some questions does not obligate me to answer all questions.
I said it before, but it bears repeating – unless you know me, don’t ask me what happened. I don’t mind an acquaintance asking me about my medical condition, but I do mind a random stranger.
Unless you know it’s acceptable to us, don’t offer to pray for us. I really hate this one, because among other things…if there’s a God, s/he made my genetic condition, so the fact that I am the way I am has to do with this higher power actually making it happen this way.
Don’t treat me like a lesson. I do not exist to make you better understand shit. I exist because I exist, the same as you do. I’m also not disabled because I’m immoral, I’m disabled because I lost the genetic lottery (and most people are disabled because of some chance of fate – being hit by a drunk driver, a genetic problem, an auto-immune issue – it has nothing to do with our morality!)
Don’t try to fix me. Unless I ask you, I don’t want to know about your cousin’s friend’s mom with the same problem who fixed it by . I don’t want suggestions on diet, exercise, or other lifestyle modifications you think will make me all better. And the fact that I don’t want your armchair MD suggestions doesn’t mean I don’t want to get better – it means that I trust my doctors, not Joe Schmoe. If I’m feeling really nice, I may make polite noises when you insist on telling me about your theory, but I’m probably not going to implement it. (having said that, if you personally have a similar disability and found something helped you, I may be interested in listening to that. Also, if I ASK for suggestions, it’s okay to give them!)
The fact that you want to help, and offer to help, does not obligate me to accept that help. I may not want it, and if you’re going to offer to help, you have to be okay with that. If you can’t accept people turning down your offer of help, don’t offer.
Remember, I’m a person with a disability. I’m not a disability. I don’t want to be treated like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I want to be treated like Kali, who happens to have some functional problems with her body. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about – remembering that I am a person, and that my disability is unique. I don’t want everything to be about my disability, and I don’t want you to always be thinking about it. Brilliant Mind has more to do with who I am than Broken Body.
EDITED TO ADD:
When I talk about language, I’m talking about American language. Different phrases are used to describe people in the UK, some of which directly contradict what I’ve said, because of different theories of disability. It’s a long discussion but the short version is that in the UK, a disability is a socially inflicted thing – you have a physical impairment, but it only becomes a disability because people as a whole do not make accomodations.