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Respectful Communication: People with Disabilities and Your Business

How patronizing customers with disabilities can cost your bottom line.

People with disabilities are often treated like children, spoken down to, and belittled. I should know – I live with one.

When striving to improve your company’s customer experience, it is important to consider your disabled customers as well. Perhaps you or your staff do not have much experience interacting with people with disabilities, and perhaps you even feel uncomfortable when you find yourself in those situations.

This is quite common; in fact, according to an article by The New Statesman, “67 percent of people feel uncomfortable when talking to a disabled person,” fearing “seeming patronizing or saying the wrong thing.”

Here are some tips to ensure that you’re speaking to your disabled customers with respect and paving the way for a comfortable experience for you and your patrons.

Speak directly to the person themselves

This is a complaint voiced often by disabled people.

For example, disability advocate and Youtuber Shane Burcaw often recounts stories of restaurant staff who, without ever even making eye contact with him, assume he is not verbal or competent and asks his wife for his order simply because he uses a wheelchair. This is deeply offensive and degrading, as treating any adult like a child would be.

There is a term referred to as “the presumption of competence,” which should become an important part of the way you interact with customers to ensure that everyone’s dignity is preserved. When interacting with disabled people, you should assume that they are able to understand and communicate with you until indicated otherwise.

It is often referred to as “the least dangerous assumption” because “in the absence of any evidence one way or the other, which of two assumptions will do less harm to an individual, should it prove to be wrong: the assumption that they are competent or incompetent?” If it becomes clear that a person cannot answer your questions or communicate on their own, it is then appropriate to seek information from their carer or companion.

Avoid patronizing language

For example, nix phrases like “big guy, champ, buddy, and pal” when speaking with strangers with disabilities. These are phrases often used when speaking to people with disabilities, and the infantilization is very offensive. If you wouldn’t speak to a non-disabled adult using those terms, don’t speak to a disabled person that way.

Don’t interrupt or assume you understand what someone is trying to say before they’ve finished communicating. If a person stutters, do not try to finish their word or sentence for them.

If a person is using a sign-language interpreter or writing to communicate because they are Deaf, be patient and wait for them to finish. If a person is using an “augmentative or alternative communication” (AAC) device to help them communicate, this may take a long time, perhaps even several minutes to complete a sentence depending on the person’s disability.

Be patient

Do not try to guess what they’re saying before they’ve finished typing or try to finish their sentence. While it may feel like you’re trying to help or be efficient, you are giving your guest the indication that their form of communication is burdensome or frustrating to you. If you would find it rude to interrupt an abled, speaking person, the same manners should apply to a disabled person communicating in any way. Assume that people want to communicate for themselves unless they specify otherwise.

Respect medical privacy

Do not ask people how long they’ve been disabled or how they came to use their wheelchairs, canes, or other mobility aids. Do not ask questions about any medical equipment or devices. This is not appropriate small talk, although this is a conversation starter disabled people often find themselves subjected to. If you wouldn’t ask invasive personal questions to an abled stranger, do not feel entitled to ask them to a disabled stranger.

Avoid euphemisms

If the topic of disability comes up in conversation, it is completely acceptable to just use the word “disability;” it isn’t an offensive term. Terms like “handicapable” or “differently abled” are often used by people who are uncomfortable with disability in general, trying to make the concept itself more palatable. As a disabled person myself, I personally find those terms to be annoying at best and occasionally rather offensive, as it feels like a denial of my identity.

According to the CDC, approximately 25% of the United States population lives with some form of disability. This is a huge percentage of our nation, and likely a huge percentage of your customer base as well. Learning to interact appropriately with your disabled customers with respect and tact can save everyone involved from shame, embarrassment, and frustration.