What is disability etiquette?
You might be surprised to learn that what constitutes proper disability etiquette is ever-evolving, globally situational, and open to individual interpretation. But fortunately, there are universal attitudes, behaviors, and language that can help you set a firm foundation.
Whether you’re a newcomer to the disability community or a seasoned veteran, everyone can benefit from established etiquette best practices.
I was recently invited to be a part of a panel to take a deep dive conversation into this topic during the Disability: IN conference this July in Orlando.
During the Disability: IN conference this July in Orlando a panel featured professionals with apparent and non-apparent disabilities outlining the fundamentals of good etiquette.
Learning the fundamentals
Our panel featured professionals with apparent and non-apparent disabilities outlining the fundamentals of good etiquette and providing a safe space to get answers to those questions that might be too awkward to ask elsewhere.
It was a conversation that explored what ableism means and how certain words and actions could be considered micro-aggressions. We discussed how respectful and disability-inclusive conversations and interactions can expand the potential for businesses to have favorable employee, customer, supplier and community experiences.
Our moderator, Ryan Commerson, a vice president of brand marketing at Sorenson Communications, is hard of hearing and communicated through American Sign Language and with an ASL interpreter.
I recently joined in the discussion with Christine Vanek, global accommodations and accessibility leader at Otis; Millie Rhind, talent acquisition manager at Baker Hughes; and Amber Bauer, senior program manager for diversity, equity, and inclusion learning at Walmart.
Respectful and disability-inclusive conversations and interactions can expand the potential for businesses to have favorable employee, customer, supplier and community experiences.
The goal was to leave the audience with discoveries, new understandings and insights.
We began with introductions that took in account that some in the audience weren’t able to see us. For example, I described myself as a Mexican American woman born with spina bifida who sports a purple wheelchair. The event had sign language interpreters.
Columnist Lucia Rios participated in a disability etiquette panel discussion during the Disability: IN conference last month.
Based on respect
Commerson began the conversation by noting that etiquette is all about being respectful. So the question is: How do we set norms for how we interact with one another so we both feel like we're being included and respected in that conversation?
Vanek gave her perspective as a person with low vision.
“Being respectful at a conference is pushing your chair to clear the space for people like me with canes, people like Lucia with wheelchairs, and help us all have more space for safe mobility,” she says. “Also, in these big networking sessions, come up and say hi to the people who have the canes, because it's harder for us to float around and meet new people and introduce ourselves.”
She adds that if you’re in a meeting with someone who is low vision or blind, introduce yourself before speaking. If you’re on a video call, explain verbally what is being said in a text chat. Those who are hard of hearing or deaf heavily rely on captioning. In social settings, it's really important to enunciate and speak clearly. Be willing to repeat your comments if needed. Also leave space, during virtual and in-person meetings, for people to enter the conversation and respond, especially if they are taking a moment to process what is being said.
Etiquette does evolve over time. It is not set in stone. There's no one set guideline for everyone, and people have their own preferences based on their experiences. For example, people who are autistic may struggle to maintain eye contact during a conversation. As a result, they can miss social cues. Also, language can also become outdated. What were acceptable terms decades ago are now considered belittling.
More workplaces are picking up practices where meeting attendees give their names and their visual descriptions before speaking out of respect for people who are blind or have low vision. Vanek suggests that descriptions should be less about what you’re wearing and instead give context to who you are. For example, I sport a purple wheelchair.
A recent panel discussion on disability etiquette explored what ableism means and how certain words and actions could be considered micro-aggressions.
Build a better workplace
Disability etiquette is important to understand in the workplace. If you don't feel like you're being respected, you don't feel like you belong there, you're going to check out or quit, says Bauer, who is with Walmart.
“We're going to lose so much fantastic talent, because it's not just that we have large numbers of people with disabilities, but that the disability community has so many fantastic traits that we want in our workforce,” Bauer says. “I can't think of any group that is, just right out of the gate, more innovative and adaptable and able to pivot, because we're constantly operating in environments that weren't made for us.”
It’s important for employers to embed disability etiquette into their culture to ensure that everyone feels valued in the workplace. If we create a space where people feel comfortable with disclosing and asking for accommodation, they will be more comfortable and confident in themselves.
It begins by starting the conversation about making sure disability etiquette is part of a company's culture, and training employees to understand and advocate when interacting with each other, vendors and customers.
Want to learn more about disability etiquette? Check out this resource guide
from Disability: IN.
This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.