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When OTs Wore White Shoes

Disability Etiquette

Published March 10, 2014 1:41 PM by Debra Karplus
A friend just returned from a lovely vacation in Philadelphia, city of brotherly love. While walking downtown, she spotted a man using a blind cane, and ran over to help him open a door.  "Forget you, tourist!" the man shouted at her. He actually used a different "F" word than "forget", unsuitable for this or any publication.  She was astounded. This type of interaction could have happened anywhere; Philadelphia is indeed a wonderful travel destination with much to do; I love visiting Philadelphia!

As occupational therapists, we know that all people with disabilities are different from each other. Some need more help and welcome it more than others. Etiquette toward people with disabilities involves treating others with the same sort of respect that we feel we deserve; any kind of etiquette involves both language and behavior. The 1970s brought about a positive sensitivity and recognition toward persons with disabilities.

Asking someone if they want your assistance is at the core of an offer to help someone, whether they have a disability or not. It's essential that we be aware that even if someone with a disability appears to be struggling to perform a task, they still may not desire our help; offering unwanted help might be construed as condescending or patronizing. Remember that despite all your excellent training as an occupational therapist, a professional specializing in disability does not change the rules for etiquette.

As therapists, touch is one of the tools we use both when establishing rapport with our patients, and of course, in our treatments. But avoid the urge to offer physical contact to people we don't know who appear to have a disability. It's simply inappropriate and considered rude.

I've learned much from my friends with disabilities. It seems that they take their situation in stride and are far more comfortable with it than I am. My friend Judy who is legally blind loves to go shopping and, despite her visual impairment, claims she can always spot the yellow clearance signs at the mall. When we are ready to say goodbye, she is the one who always says "see you later." She means that, of course, in a figurative way and that's fine.

Much of our language is figurative rather than literal. Betty who uses a wheelchair often calls me on balmy weather days to see if I want to go walking. I'm the only one actually walking as I race to keep up with her motorized chair, but that's how we speak. I, a very literal person, have become more comfortable with these and other idioms as the result of these and other long time friendships.

There are many websites that address etiquette that are specific to disabilities.  If someone is visually impaired, for example, identify yourself as you approach; "Hi Judy, it's Debbie." The essence of etiquette to those with disabilities is to ask before you act.  But if you are impulsive, as I sometimes am, and make a mistake, simply apologize and move on.

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