Avoiding assumptions about people with disabilities

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It would be unusual to walk up a flight of stairs and have a complete stranger ask if he could carry you up the stairway. However, people with disabilities encounter awkward situations like this on a regular basis — situations that could be avoided by the simple use of etiquette.

Uncertainty about how to interact with people with disabilities has been a trend in our society that makes many individuals hesitant about, and sometimes fearful of, helping disabled individuals.

BYU students walk with blind student Kirt Manwaring  (photo by Mark Philbrick)
BYU students walk with blind student Kirt Manwaring. (Photo by Mark Philbrick)

Keith Barney, a recreation management professor, teaches classes about therapeutic recreation and requires his students to use wheelchairs, boots and crutches to understand how people treat the disabled. Barney said students are astonished by the things others say and do to them while using these tools.

“Someone was going up the stairs here in the (Richards Building),” Barney said. “This was a person using one crutch or two crutches, some young man says, ‘Can I carry you?’ Now that’s really weird. … That’s what we don’t want to see.”

Although some approaches are not tasteful, most students have good intentions.

Taylor Peck, a theater studies major, said she tries to be polite to people with disabilities but is unsure about how to communicate naturally without being insensitive.

“You want to be polite,” Peck said. “But I feel like … some of them feel like you’re being condescending or you’re not treating them as equals if you go out of your way to help them.”

Peck’s concern is typical of BYU students who have had little interaction with people with disabilities.

Kirt Manwaring, a political science major, is blind and said people sometimes speak in an unnatural way to avoid offending him but it only makes things odd.

“Instead of saying, ‘I’ll hear you later,’ or, ‘did you listen to that movie yesterday?’ … I prefer it if people just talk to me naturally,” Manwaring said. “People do that, and it’s really awkward … it’s a figure of speech, and I don’t care.”

Shelby Hintze, a public relations major, has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair. She said the terms used to refer to disabled people may offend some and be perfectly fine to others.

“It’s definitely a person-by-person basis,” Hintze said. “I have a friend that calls herself a cripple, and I would never say that.”

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Shelby Hintze with her roommate Makayla Johnson. (Photo by Chris Bunker)

People with disabilities occasionally encounter people staring at them. Barney, who uses a wheelchair, is no longer bothered by occasional looks but has observed several different ways people stare.

“There’s two kinds of groups; one is the (group that) stares, but you’re invisible as soon as they get caught, and the other group that is, like, inappropriate,” Barney said. “(One) group avoids contact, and the other over-contacts.”

Michael Brooks, director of the University Accessibility Center, said the center has created Ten Commandments of Communication that give tips for how to communicate with people with disabilities. The fourth commandment reads, “If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted, then ask how to assist.” Brooks said people should still be willing to help those with disabilities but should not give help without making sure there is a need.

“It never hurts to ask someone,” Brooks said. “Sometimes people need help, but the key is not to assume people need help.”

Barney said when interacting with people with disabilities the introduction is important. Sometimes people will start a conversation by asking Barney why he uses a wheelchair, which is not the best or most polite way to begin any conversation.

“Some people will come up straight out of the blue and ask, ‘OK so what happened to you?’ … that’s not appropriate by our social standards,” Barney said. “Ask somebody their name, ask if they would like any assistance, it’s always sort of setting the stage, establish some rapport.”

Hintz has had similar interactions but says her overall experience at BYU has been positive.

“Here at BYU I have had a really good experience; everyone is generally really nice and helpful,” Hintze said. “There are always things that can be fixed, but I’d say the good definitely outweighs the bad.”

Barney said the BYU community is filled with courteous people who try to help those around them.

“We have so many people that are just good, helpful, Christian people,” Barney said. “They hold the door for anyone because it’s just what we all do; it’s courtesy. It’s not chivalry, and it’s not patronizing.”

However, Barney said that occasionally individuals are overly eager to help.

“Harvard Business School did a study, (and) they called it a ‘halo effect,’” Barney said. “It’s where people think, ‘I’m really afraid of you, but to show I’m not, I’m going to react in another way.’”

People’s tendency to be overly helpful is not the main concern when communicating with people with disabilities. What is important is the way help is given.

“It’s good to want to help people, but the way you do it is what’s important,” Manwaring said. “Ask them if they need help and then be okay with the answer the person gives.”

Manwaring wishes people would worry less about offending him and interact with him more naturally and less hesitantly.

“People have noble reasons for being hesitant because (they) don’t want to offend people,” Manwaring said. “People are hesitant, and they shouldn’t be.”

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