When you first meet someone who is blind, deaf, or in a wheelchair, what is your initial reaction? Curiosity? Sympathy? Awkwardness? If you experience any of these emotions, you are not alone. Chances are you don’t regularly associate with someone who is disabled, so these feelings are quite common.
Having been blind since birth, I have encountered a wide range of reactions, from curious stares when I walk down the street with a cane or holding someone’s arm, to amazement at being able to feed and dress myself. Most people don’t intend to be rude or insensitive but just aren’t sure what to expect. Here are four points to keep in mind if you should happen to meet a disabled person.
1. Disabled people can lead active lives. With few exceptions, a disability does not prevent someone from working, raising a family, or taking part in social activities. Many sports and recreation programs have been adapted to accommodate a person with a disability, including baseball, golf, water skiing, biking, and swimming. Instead of concentrating on the disability, look at the person the same way you would any other acquaintance.
2. It’s all right to ask questions. Many people are afraid of offending someone by asking about their disability. When meeting anyone for the first time, it’s natural to be curious about who they are, where they’re from, and what they do for a living.
The same is true for a disabled person. Asking questions is usually acceptable, as long as you use common sense. Don’t, for example, ask a blind person how he feeds and bathes himself. Instead, find out what equipment or techniques he uses in his job and at home, how he gets around town, how does Braille works, etc.
3. Offer assistance when necessary. You see a woman in a wheelchair having trouble entering a building or negotiating steps. You’d like to help, but don’t want to embarrass her. What should you do?
It’s usually appropriate to lend a hand if someone is having obvious difficulty, but keep in mind that not everyone will be willing to accept your help. It’s not much different from pulling over and offering assistance to a motorist with a flat tire. Unless the woman in the wheelchair is in danger, it isn’t necessary to press the issue if they refuse your help. You did your part.
4. Remember that we all have obstacles to overcome. No matter who we are, each of us has a weakness or challenge to face. How do you feel when you are treated differently for being bald, short, or heavyset? Like you, a disabled person would much rather be accepted for who they are, rather than be pitied or shunned because of a disability. Many friends and colleagues have said to me, “I often forget that you are blind.” To me, that is the ultimate compliment.
Meeting someone with a disability doesn’t have to be an intimidating experience. Asking questions, offering assistance, and putting yourself in their shoes can go a long way toward recognizing them as people with normal thoughts and feelings who just happen to have a disability. Who knows? You might make some new friends in the process.