Disability etiquette for volunteers – introduction

Almost 80% of the world’s population of persons with disabilities lives in developing countries. Chronic health conditions, wars, road traffic injuries, land mines… there are many reasons why their number is in constant increase. Poverty and disability make them face also other challenges like ignorance, discrimination, lack of job opportunities and even social exclusion from communities and families.

Nowadays there are many efforts being taken to fight these problems and meet the needs of people with disabilities in developing countries. The number of volunteer programs supporting this cause is growing, but in fact not many people, even in  their daily life, know how to interact with people with disabilities. In response to this problem, Aware Volunteer Network in cooperation with United Spinal Association is happy to introduce the first part of disability etiquette for volunteers who wish to improve their interpersonal skills and deepen their knowledge about problems with disability in developing countries.

Why disability etiquette is so important?

Nearly 1 in 5 people worldwide identify as having some sort of disability. These are people each one of us interact with everyday – perhaps in our family, workplace or social setting. Being aware of disability etiquette will make these encounters more enjoyable, comfortable and efficient for everyone involved. By understanding some of issues that arise with various disabilities we can be prepared to address needs or accommodate requests in a manner that is appropriate and beneficial for all.

The Basics

1. Ask before you help

Just because someone has a disability, don’t assume she needs help. If the setting is accessible, people with disabilities can usually get around fine. Adults with disabilities want to be treated as independent people. Offer assistance only if the person appears to need it. A person with a disability will oftentimes communicate when she needs help. And if she does want help, ask how before you act.

2. Be sensitive about physical contact

Some people with disabilities depend on their arms for balance. Grabbing them, even if your intention is to assist, could knock them off balance. Avoid patting a person on the head or touching his wheelchair, scooter or cane. People with disabilities consider their equipment part of their personal space.

3. Think before you speak

Speak directly to a person with a disability not to his companion: always speak directly to the person with a disability, not to his companion, aide or sign language interpreter. Making small talk with a person who has a disability is great; just talk to him as you would with anyone else.

Don’t ask about his disability and problems with family or community relations before getting to know him. Some cultures perceive disabilities as being related to misconduct in a previous life or as a disgrace to the family. Moreover, he may feel like you are treating him as a disability, not as a human being.

In cooperation with: