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How’s and Why’s of Disability Etiquette: Taken from the Perspective of a Senior Support Center’s CEO

To this day, there’s long been an overwhelming lack of knowledge surrounding the disabled community. With this ignorance comes the struggle of not knowing how to appropriately and respectfully behave around persons with disabilities, or how and when to properly provide the support they need. This behavior is left to guesswork that is largely based on assumptions and miscommunication. The potential for creating a more inclusive and accessible environment exponentially increases when we listen and learn from those who do have experience with a disability.

VisitAble recently spoke with Marta Keane, who is going on her 10th year as CEO of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA). JABA is a federally mandated program in its 46th year of providing services and support for aging seniors and those with disabilities across Charlottesville, Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, and Nelson in Central Virginia. In their day-to-day operations, JABA employees are working to offer a fully inclusive experience to its members by offering services, such as a senior helpline, home-delivered meals service, community center activities, nursing care, and more.

A major component of JABA is what they like to call their adult daycare centers. These locations are open to seniors in the community as well as adults over the age of 18 who are living with a disability. As you may expect, the staff routinely encounters and interacts with members who possess a wide range of visible and invisible disabilities; their work demands that a certain level of awareness and consideration is put towards accommodating these visitors and creating an inclusive environment.

Marta herself experienced a temporary disability in her recent past, which strengthened her sense of how those in similar positions can best be integrated into the JABA community and supported in their daily lives. Nevertheless, VisitAble was curious to find out from Marta how committed the company is to accessibility. “Honestly there’s a lack of consciousness about it.” She describes how JABA posters and flyers are not often accessible for those in the blind and low vision communities, emphasizing the need to rethink their design efforts. “Society wants things to look cool…It isn’t necessarily overt discrimination but a discreet form:” one that most people don’t give a second thought to.

Marta states that they have people thinking about the design basics at JABA. She suggests that there’s a long way to go to address and operate around persons with disabilities in business settings. She also shares a sentiment that many in and outside of the disabled community hold, which is that “Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance does not mean much” for those who are affected every day by a lack of accessibility. If you had the chance to read VisitAble’s piece on the ADA and what its implications are – Accessibility and the Americans with Disabilities Act –, Marta’s position on ADA rings true with what is stressed throughout the article. The law is littered with pitfalls that create a sizable gap between legislative compliance and realistic accessibility features across businesses and organizations.

Another important point came up during the talk: accessibility is not an exclusive, one-way street for improving our communities. As Marta puts it, “almost all of the adaptations [we can make] would help others without disabilities as well.” Usually, people perceive accessibility as a solution to addressing physical barriers; however, there are more obstacles to an accessible world that fail to provide equity and inclusion. What about the attitudinal barriers? How can we best change the way we interact with persons with disabilities to ensure that they feel respected, equal, and independent?

Marta gave some suggestions based on her personal and professional experience, regarding what she thinks we should all consider when speaking face-to-face with those in the disabled community, and how we can proactively think about our etiquette. These were her answers.

1. Ask the person what they need.

If you see a person with a disability struggling or having difficulty with something, the first thought should never be to leap in and try to take control of the situation unannounced. As Marta puts it, “there’s an assumption that you have a concurrent mental disability along with a physical disability.” This is far from the truth, and it warrants reminding that those with a disability, regardless of their circumstances, have the best sense of what they are capable of.

Simple questions such as “Can I help you?” or “Can I push you?” are effective and easy ways to get a clear sense of whether they need the assistance or not. Give them the chance to say how or if you can be of any help to avoid confusion and disagreement.

2. Consider what we can build upon rather than on something a person can’t do.

A great deal of public perception towards the disabled community hinges on their inabilities. Putting a spin on this, Marta recommends turning the focus towards the ability that they have to accomplish tasks. She advises focusing on how they perform in ways that are the same if not better than the capability of a non-disabled person. She tells me, “not everything is a one size fits all scenario,” stressing the need to maintain an open-mind when interacting with a person or persons who have a disability.

3. Look at the person while you speak to them.

Just as you would with anyone else when trying to be polite and cordial, using eye contact when speaking to a person with a disability is perhaps the simplest and most appropriate way to show that you respect and recognize them. One of the most common issues the disabled community faces is constantly being ignored or feared for merely going about their lives. One of the most common complaints that comes from the disabled community has to do with the feeling of being “ignored” just for existing the way they do while navigating this world.

These general tips just scratch the surface on ways to rethink how we can challenge the assumptions and predispositions that are held towards disabled people. Tackling this issue takes more than following a few guidelines, but for those who have had little experience interacting with those in the disabled community, they offer a great place to start.

If anything, be a listener. Treat every interaction as an opportunity to build on what you already know, and put your attention toward the general dialogue surrounding accessibility and disability etiquette. “I think there’s an awakening… people with mobility challenges are more capable of being part of the conversation and gaining more voice,” Marta says. Just as JABA is still learning and adapting to a diverse world, it’s up to everyone else to do the same, even if it takes revisiting the basics sometimes.

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