Advocacy Starts with You: Interacting with Students with Disabilities

Posted On September 17, 2020
Categories Uncategorized

You may have noticed that a student in your class has an interpreter with them during lectures or that one of your students has submitted a request for a note taker. Whether you are a fellow student, faculty or even staff member, your daily interactions might include a student with a disability. To create an inclusive environment, it is important that people know what actions can be taken to offer support. Just as importantly, one must know what actions come off as offensive or exclusive to students with disabilities. Being unaware of offensive behavior puts one at risk for displaying micro aggressions. A micro aggression is a form of indirect or subtle discrimination towards a minority. Even though micro aggressions are typically unintentional, they are harmful and should be avoided. This article will cover actions you can take to contribute to positive social interactions for students with disabilities.

  • Do not assume you know what someone’s disability or diagnosis is. Allow them the opportunity to disclose if they so choose.
  • Do not tamper with someone’s mobility equipment, such as a wheelchair or cane. One’s equipment can be considered as their personal space and property.
  • Avoid leaning on or using someone’s item without their permission.
  • Respect the requests that a person with a disability makes. Disabilities can be visible or invisible and you may not understand someone’s needs. For example, a person may state that they require limited physical activity despite not having an obvious mobility issue; an invisible disability may affect their energy levels. Different people have different needs and should be treated accordingly.
  • Treat an adult with a disability how you would any adult. This means avoiding using pet names, baby talk or prolonged staring. Be sure to make eye contact as well unless the person indicates otherwise.
  • Regardless of whether you are referring to a student with a disability or having an unrelated conversation, avoid making jokes about disabilities or using stigmatized terms such as “retarded” or “crippled.” Doing so contributes to the marginalization of people with disabilities.
  • Disabilities are not descriptors. It is common to hear someone say that they are “so bipolar” because they are moody or “OCD” because they like to be organized. This use of this language should be heavily avoided as it discredits the experiences of people with real diagnoses. One should not claim to have a disability unless they truly have one.
  • Never attempt to pet or feed a service dog without permission. They are meant to assist their owner and doing so may distract them from their task.
  • Be sensitive towards those who have difficulty speaking. If you are speaking to someone with delayed speech, do not rush them to speak faster. Be patient and give them the time they need to finish their thought. Also, never correct someone’s grammar, pronunciation of words or finish their sentence. If you did not understand what was said, ask for clarification rather than pretending you understood.
  • Many people prefer “person first language,” as in, a person with autism. However, there are individuals who prefer disability first (e.g. autistic person). While person first is often a safe bet, ask someone before assuming their preference.
  • If someone is using a sign language interpreter, direct your speech to the person you are conversing with, not the interpreter. Not doing so can exclude someone from the conversation. The same rule applies for those who use a companion or aide.
  • When assisting a blind person, do not grab them to get their attention or give them direction. If they prefer, a blind person may ask to take your elbow for guidance. Always ask if and how they want to be helped first.

Please remember that everyone is an individual and has their own preferences. While these general rules are typically safe to follow, it is always beneficial to ask someone what their preferences are. As always, the change starts with you. Choosing to be inclusive means taking a step towards an equitable society.