Folksy Ltd

Communicating with disabled customers

(Ronald Koorm) #1

Frequently I see examples of poor phrasing and inappropriate language when talking about, with, or to disabled people. Not actually on Folksy, but on the radio, TV, in newspapers, publications, etc.
Things like ‘wheelchair-bound’ ; ‘The deaf’ ; ‘The blind’ ; ‘the disabled’ ; ‘handicapped’, etc.

Please can we talk about ‘wheelchair-users’ rather than ‘wheelchair-bound’, and ‘disabled people’ rather than ‘the disabled’, etc. Some get frustrated when they see poor signage or inappropriate text, but most are too polite to say anything.

I do have a slightly vested interest, as I retired as an accessibility consultant and worked closely with disabled people on equality and inclusion, for many years.

This is more than just political correctness, it is about respecting disabled people, and most important when disabled customers are being offered a service , eg selling goods and services to them, or buying from them. ie communication.

I have had to correct a library manager, theatre managers, contractors, shopkeepers, restaurant managers, and many others in the use of inappropriate language , (and poor signage), where disabled matters arise.

By the way, in my view , (and that of most access professionals), the only ‘Disabled Toilet’ is one out of action for repairs. It might be a ‘wheelchair-accessible toilet’, or an ‘accessible toilet’, but is not really a ‘disabled toilet’, if still functional.

OK end of rant.

Just would appreciate more care when communicating with, or writing about disabled people generally.(This also applies to communication on websites, flyers, advertising, and blogging on twitter, facebook, etc.)

(Maggie Gee Needlework Studio) #2

I utterly agree with you…

…(although it calls to mind a very naughty and unpolitically correct scene in ‘There’s Something about Mary’ that I confess always makes me laugh despite being utterly on your side…needless to say I won’t relate it here!!)…

(Rachel) #3

Thats so true about the “disabled loo” never thought of it like that. Rachel

(Jan Ryan) #4

I totally agree with what you’re saying but one thing I disagree with in your post… I don’t like the phrase ‘disabled people’ I much prefer to say ‘people with disabilities’ or ‘a person with a disability’
Jan x

(Ronald Koorm) #5

"People with disabilities’ or ’ a person with a disability’ are indeed preferable.
‘Disabled people’ is acceptable, in the right context. Problem with that, is that people often generalise, and of course, in real life, everyone is different.

I once co-authored a glossary for the RICS , on Inclusion , Equality, and the Built Environment. We provided lots of definitions relevant to disability. (This was a publication meant for surveyors, architects and design professionals worldwide). Also a few phrases and terms that were considered no longer satisfactory.

A whole lot of discussion on those phrases, with a senior lawyer also commenting.

I think there will always be some disagreement on some phrases and terms. However, in the main, people will adapt and change, if informed.

(Ronald Koorm) #6

Please feel free to tell your friends, contacts, and relations about how to refer to ‘accessible loos’ ! Do also make a fuss if you see inappropriate signage in a restaurant, shop, office, etc.
My wife is used to me going up to managers of restaurants,etc., and challenging them.
One wheelchair-accessible loo, I found, was being used to store lots of spare tables and chairs in a restaurant , so no one could even get in. The route to the loo door was blocked completely with hat and coat stands too !

(Jan Ryan) #7

Ronald, I’m also one of those people who generalise and have been known to say the wrong thing and ‘put my foot in it’ I’ve heard myself describe someone and instantly cringe because I’ve used an ‘unsuitable’ phrase.
My father became deaf in his later years, my mother became blind in her late 60’s and within the family we had a lot of ‘in jokes’ I sometimes forgot when I was out that other people wouldn’t understand our humour :slight_smile:
I totally agree that when something is written, newspapers, magazine articles, things on tv or radio etc there is time (and a duty) to read, check, re-read and re-check that the communication is acceptable.
You have reminded me of something my father used to say of me… ‘you open your mouth before putting your brain in gear’ :slight_smile:
I admire and commend your values in these matters.

Jan x

(Lizzie Gillum, Bedfordshire, Uk ) #8

Absolutely Ron! Brings to mind that “Does he take sugar?” thing.
This regularly happens when I’m out with my mother, who has mobility problems and some difficulties with her sight (she’s pretty much blind in her right eye) and poor hearing. It’s less difficult if she is using her elbow-crutches to get about, but as soon as she has to resort to her “chariot”, people suddenly seem to assume that it’s not just her legs that are “faulty”, but her brain and intellect also. We’ve even been at the doctor’s and had one of the GP’s ask Me all the questions over the top of her head. Similar from one of the Dr’s reception staff too - “Does she…?”. My reply? “Ask her!”

In some ways, I see that People find it frustrating and confusing to be asked to use / not use specific phrases to describe those who are disabled; on the other hand, it is - as you say - down to respect. Treating a disabled person as if they are Not a Normal Person, is basically just insulting, rude, disrespectful. There is a certain amount of fear or anxiety involved though, in the way that people in general behave towards disabled people. They don’t know how to approach them, treat them, behave towards them, because they are “different” - different can be scary and it can be hard to see the human being inside the body with the wheelchair / crutches / dark glasses / white stick / hearing aid etc. etc…

But basically, if you don’t know how that person wants you to treat them, you can ask (politely and respectfully)!

“The Disabled” are People. They may be people whose bodies don’t behave in the same way that most other people’s bodies behave, but that doesn’t make them Not People. If we can try to remember that, then People with Disabilities are just normal members of society, who happen to need additional help or support, so that they can live their lives alongside everyone else.

Just a thing, then; next time you need to address a person in a wheelchair, speak to The Person in the wheelchair. The chair doesn’t matter, but the Person does!


(Stephanie Guy) #9

The do’s and don’t’s are a minefield. For example I never realised until recently that one shouldn’t get down to a wheelchair user’s level to speak to them, one should stay at one’s own level and talk down to them. That seems rude to me, but I’m told that to squat or kneel is condescending.

(Lizzie Gillum, Bedfordshire, Uk ) #10

I think that to squat down is condescending. Whether you kneel down probably depends on the situation - if others are sitting round about, then you have an excuse / reason to be sitting or kneeling too. If there are chairs next to the person, then why wouldn’t you sit down to speak to them - it then seems more sensible and more polite!
So it’s probably down to circumstances - if everyone else (or most people) are seated / kneeling, then do the same; if pretty much everyone is standing, then take your lead from the person you are talking to - stay standing, but sit if they suggest it.
I think that would work…

(Lizzie Gillum, Bedfordshire, Uk ) #11

Hmm, just an after-thought… If you are standing to talk to anyone - disabled or not - you don’t want to stand too close to them, or they will feel “crowded”. This must apply to a person who is sitting in a wheelchair, or any other chair. It would make a person feel uncomfortable, if you stood really close to their chair - and they would then need to tip their head back to look up at you, which is also not comfortable.
So, if you’re standing to talk to a wheelchair user, stand a foot or so away, so they don’t get a crick in their kneck!

(Diane Burton) #12

I’d not thought of that either, possibly because I worked in childcare for many years & was used to getting down to their face level to make sure I’d been heard, also I have trouble keeping up with conversations when there’s a lot of background noise so tend to want to see a persons face when speaking to them, must remember that in future.

(Ronald Koorm) #13

Thanks for your kind comments.

I had a slight advantage - in my later career I worked auditing, designing and improving premises/facilities for disabled people, but soon realised that what I was doing was making the facilties more “inclusive” .

Everyone benefits from an inclusive environment.

The “social model of disability” which we work to, says it’s the buildings/policies that are the problem, not the users, and the buildings need adjustments for persons with disabilities and others, and the staff need ‘disability-awareness’ training.

The “medical model” approaches it very differently, ie the buildings, facilities and policies are fine, so persons with disabilities need to adapt themselves or “get fixed” which is of course, ridiculous. We all work to the social model nowadays, and anyone who doesn’t, needs awareness training.

(Ronald Koorm) #14

Yes, we all need personal space.

Also, I understand that when talking to some persons with dementia who are sitting, it is important to get down to their level, so they don’t feel intimidated.

(Silvapagan) #15

Best option of all is to ask the individual how they would like to be referred to (and most will just then give you their first name).

It anoys me when people say “disabled” but think only “wheelchair”.

We all have abilities, and other things that we cannot do, or cannot do very well.

(Eileens Craft Studio) #16

Gosh I know my daughter finds it much nicer when someone made an enough to not ‘tower’ over her when she’s in her wheelchair. She really appreciates someone who attempts to lower themselves so they can have better eye to eye contact.

She gets fed up straining her neck looking up at people. In fact she’s had time’s when she’s given up and just sat there in her wheelchair looking at her hands and disengaging.

(Stephanie Guy) #17

That was always my thinking…if I were in a wheel chair I’d prefer people to come down to my level. Like Diane I also have difficulty separating individual conversations from background noise and have to lip read a lot to keep up.

So it’s not always a bad move then.

(Ronald Koorm) #18

True, many do just associate ‘disabled’ with wheelchair-users.

But mobility-impaired wheelchair-users are very much in the minority, when one takes all the disabilities into account.

It’s just that they may be more ‘visible’.

It can be just as frustrating for a person with a hearing- impairment or with a learning difficulty, to be denied good service due to people not understanding their situation, as it can be for mobility-impaired people.

(Lizzie Gillum, Bedfordshire, Uk ) #19

You’re right, Ron. There does seem to be an assumption that “all disabled people use a wheelchair” - until people stop and think a bit. The “invisible” disabilities are the hardest for people to understand or relate to.

A friend at college - a mature student - was very upset, because the local council refused her daughter a bus pass to get to school, on the grounds that “she is not disabled”. The reply was “yes, she is, she is profoundly deaf”. The person at the council refused to accept this as a disability. Even when it was pointed out that the daughter could not safely walk to school and was unable to use a bicycle, as she couldn’t balance (because of her ears), they still insisted she had no disability. It was pretty crazy. (I will add, this was some years ago now).

Recently someone I know was screamed and yelled at, in a supermarket car park, because she parked in a disabled space outside the door of the shop. The person who attacked her maintained that she had no right to use the space - despite having her disabled badge on display in the car. This was because my friend was not in a wheelchair, so therefore could not be disabled. The friend pointed out that she is unable to walk far, due to an illness, which makes it very difficult for her to do her shopping. The disabled bay made it possible to walk into the shop and ask for help with her shopping (someone will push her trolley and get things off the shelves for her). The person was truly horrible to her and left her huddled in her car, sobbing and retching. She had to call her husband to leave work and walk to the shops, to rescue her, as she was too distressed to drive home.

This kind of behaviour is obviously extreme, but even I am occasionally guilty of making dangerous and unfair assumptions. Such as grumbling at a person in a white van, who parked in the disabled bay outside the doctors’ office. I assumed that someone driving a van could not be disabled. She wasn’t - it was her passenger. They had a blue badge on display. I did apologise (and retired feeling a worm). My mum was with me and she told me off - just to finish me completely. I am trying harder, to not pre-judge or jump to conclusions, without first looking and getting all the information!

(Margaret Jackson) #20

This is interesting, I often park in a disabled bay because my 91year old dad is a passenger. He can’t walk far and has a blue badge. So far nobody has said anything to me, as I am the driver and am obviously not disabled but I have wondered sometimes if anyone thinks I shouldn’t use disabled bays!