Interacting with Persons with Disabilities

Many persons without disabilities feel uncomfortable around individuals with disabilities. Although the ADA removes many barriers, the law cannot eradicate invisible attitudinal hurdles. Sometimes, individuals avoid people with disabilities or exhibit awkwardness towards them. Much of this discomfort stems from misunderstanding and lack of contact with people with disabilities. Common feelings include:

Social Uneasiness: A sense of awkwardness and uncertainty as to how to speak and act in the presence of people with disabilities.
Paternalism: A feeling that people with disabilities are dependent and helpless and therefore in need of special treatment or charity.
Assumptions about Emotions: Assumptions about how people with disabilities feel about their conditions, specifically that they feel sorry for themselves or that they are bitter.
Assumptions about Abilities: Assumptions about what people with disabilities can or cannot do.

There are several steps that can be taken to help ease a sense of awkwardness. These include the following:

  • Feel free to offer assistance to a person with a disability or ask how you should act or communicate, but do not automatically assume that the person needs assistance. Wait until the offer is accepted. Then, the individual can let you know what action he or she prefers.
  • Look directly at an individual with a disability when addressing him or her, even if a companion or sign language interpreter is present. This is a sign of respect. Avoiding eye contact sometimes increases tension. In addition, persons with hearing impairments may rely on speech reading and may need to look directly at your face.
  • Adults should always be treated as adults.
  • Do not assume that a person with a disability is more fragile or sensitive than others. These feelings may make you reluctant to ask certain questions that should be asked.
  • When meeting a person with a visual impairment, always identify yourself and anyone else who may be with you.
  • When conversing with a wheelchair user or a person of short stature, try to be seated to facilitate eye contact.

Reception Etiquette

Reception personnel can be the first contact for patients with disabilities, and are in a unique position to make a welcoming first impression. Therefore, reception etiquette is of paramount importance, and reception staff should be aware of the location of accessible restrooms, water fountains, telephones, and other facilities in the building. The following points of etiquette may be helpful:

  • It is appropriate to shake hands with a person with limited hand use, an artificial limb, or a person who uses their left hand only.
  • When a person with a visual impairment enters the dental office, especially if it is his or her first visit, it is appropriate to approach the individual, introduce oneself, and provide verbal orientation to the office.
  • If the individual with a visual impairment would prefer to be physically guided through the facility, it is preferable to offer one's elbow as opposed to grasping the person by the arm.
  • If assistance is required in order to complete paperwork, confidentiality of the individual must be preserved. It may be expedient to provide a private room for the patient, especially if he or she requires that the questions be answered verbally.

For more information about interacting with persons with disabilities see Community Resources for Independence: http://www.crinet.org/interact.php