Over one billion people, or approximately 15 per cent of the world’s population, live with some form of disability. International Day for Persons with Disability (IDPD) has been promoted by the United Nations since 1992. IDPD 2013 is December 3rd. Its theme is “Break Barriers, Open Doors: for an inclusive society and development for all”.
Staying at a hotel in the Southern United States recently, a children’s beauty pageant was being held in the venue on the morning I checked out. As I waited for my airport taxi, I observed the comings and goings of the participants and their parents. Having only seen this kind of event on TV, I was somewhat fascinated and to be honest, not a fan of the concept.
One family arrived and brought in bag after bag of paraphernalia – frilly dresses, shoes and tiaras, even a miniature piano. Then they spent some time outside putting together a frame of some sort – what prop might this be, I wondered? It quickly became evident that it was in fact no prop, but a highly specialised wheelchair with full head and neck support for the user, and I watched as the father lifted his son gently into the chair. The young boy took control of the small joystick and steered his way into reception, with his parents, sister and final pageant bags in tow.
A hotel greeter who had been welcoming participants all morning, greeted the parents and daughter, gave them directions to the function room and asked if they had everything they needed. He then turned to the mother and said ‘Does your son need any assistance today?’, but did not direct the question to the disabled boy or make any eye contact with him. ‘Let’s ask him’, said the mother, curtly. ‘Dylan, you OK honey, you need anything?’ she asked her son, looking intently into his face. From a distance I could not decipher his response, but his mother could, and she informed the hotel employee ‘He says he’s just fine for now, but feel free to check in with him again later’.
In truth, I felt for the hotel employee – the intention had been good, but something got lost in communication… So what is it about disability that makes us change our behaviour? What could we learn about communications and relationships with people with a disability from this boy’s mother?
Awareness. Clearly, being the mother of a person with a disability provides a level of awareness about their ability level that few of us could hope to gain or match in the space of a single interaction. However, we should learn to ask questions that grow our awareness. This is true for employers, co-workers, employees and social acquaintances. Remember – the person with the disability is most likely the expert on their condition, so reach out to them and/or their carer, and learn what you need to. Don’t be afraid to ask – if they were ‘able bodied’, you wouldn’t hesitate.
Communication. When disability is visible, it triggers a reaction of fear in many of us. Our mind races to answer questions such as, can they understand me? Can I understand them? Do I need to adapt my style? Or we simply choose to avoid communicating direct with the person, for fear of getting it wrong. Keep questions simple, open and direct and your awareness will increase, fear dissipate and you will start to build a relationship.
Avoid Assumption. When we have experienced someone with disability in the past, it’s easy to assume that the needs or preferences of anyone with a disability must be the same. But disability is like a fingerprint – as individual as every one of us, and no two are the same. So ask questions, grow your awareness and respect differences. Many people who have with disabilities choose not to label themselves as disabled – because in their own view (or that of their mother!) they simply aren’t.
Disability Awareness in your Workplace visit: http://www.un.org/disabilities