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Responding to Disability: A Question of Attitude

Written by Patricia Hague
produced by Minnesota State Council on Disabilities
208 Metro Square Building
St. Paul, MN 55101
612/296-6785 or
Toll Free Voice and TDD
edited by Indiana Governors Planning Council for People With Disabilities


With the recent changes in laws, opportunities, and attitudes, more people with disabilities are moving into the mainstream, pursuing education, employment, and leisure activities. Yet few of us have had extensive exposure to people with disabilities. Despite our desires to respond appropriately when we interact with a person who has a disability, sometimes there is confusion, hesitancy or miscommunication.

This questionnaire is designed to stimulate thinking and dialogue. It is not intended to test your knowledge of disability or your attitudes toward people with disabilities. Increasingly we find ourselves in situations involving people who are disabled and we need to make quick decisions on how to respond. We're not always sure what response is best. This questionnaire will give you an opportunity to think about situations involving disabilities, to respond, and then to consider the various responses more carefully.

For each question, pick the answer that you feel is best. When you have answered all 14 questions, turn to the answer section that follows. In the answer section you will find discussion regarding each of the various responses. When you are done, discuss this questionnaire with others. Ultimately in any human interaction there are not "right" or "wrong" answers.

Question Section
  1. You are in a grocery store with your children when a man in an electric wheelchair enters. Your children ask in loud voices: "Why is that man sitting down?" Then they go over to him and ask: "What's wrong with you?" Your response should be:
    1. try as discreetly as possible to get your children away from the man and to tell them it's not polite to talk like that.
    2. explain to your children that the man has a disability and, if they want to know more, ask if he would mind briefly telling your children what that means.
    3. go to the man and apologize for your children's behavior while encouraging the children to come with you and to leave the man alone.

  2. You see a woman with a disability struggling to get a package off of the floor and into her lap. You approach her and ask if she would like some assistance. She snaps angrily at you, saying that she can get it herself without your help. You conclude that:
    1. you should not have offered to help her.
    2. people who are disabled do not want assistance unless they ask for it.
    3. you have just met a person in a bad mood.
    4. all of the above.

  3. Which of the following positions has not been filled by a person who is legally blind?
    1. photographer
    2. airplane pilot
    3. chemistry professor
    4. all of the above

  4. You are talking to a woman with a severe speech impairment. You have asked the woman to repeat herself in order to understand what she is saying. The person has repeated one phrase five times and you still don't understand it. You should:
    1. give up and go on, assuming you will get the meaning from the context of the rest of the conversation.
    2. ask again and again to have the sentence repeated, until you do understand it.
    3. ask the woman to spell the word, or use an alternate word or phrase.
    4. get someone else who understands the woman better to serve as an interpreter.
    5. make a joke about the situation and laugh at your inability to understand the woman.

  5. Because of your background with organizing church events, you are asked to serve on a committee that will be organizing a local telethon fund raiser similar to the Jerry Lewis telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The proceeds of your local telethon will be donated to the local Association for Retarded Citizens. After agreeing to serve on the committee, you remember that you have a neighbor who has been treated for mental illness and who occasionally gives talks about mental illness. You should:
    1. ask your neighbor if he would be interested in helping with the telethon so that you have consumers involved in raising the money for an organization that benefits them.
    2. ask your neighbor if he would share some of his experiences with mental illness with you so that you will be more knowledgeable and sensitive when dealing with the people affiliated with the Association for Retarded Citizens.
    3. neither of the above
    4. both a and b above.

  6. You are talking to a person who is deaf through a sign language interpreter. At the end of the conversation, you decide to talk to the interpreter. As you begin talking, the interpreter continues to sign. You stop him, saying, "You don't have to sign this." However, the interpreter continues to sign everything you say. At this point you should:
    1. tell the person who is deaf you are having a private conversation with the interpreter and that you have asked him not to sign.
    2. ask the person who is deaf for permission to ask a question of the interpreter; then ask the interpreter if he will have free time to talk to you later.
    3. continue talking, but position yourself so that you block the person who is deaf's view of the interpreter.
    4. politely draw the interpreter away from the person and explain that you meant your conversation to be private.
    5. lightly touch or hold the interpreter's hand so that he will realize that you don't want the conversation interpreted.

  7. A person with a hearing impairment who is a good lip reader will be able to see the following percentage of spoken sounds by watching the lips of a speaker.
    1. 80% - 90%
    2. 40% - 50%
    3. 35% or less

  8. You are teaching a freshman college class in which there is one student with a disability. This student is working very hard and doing the best she can. However, even her best work is only "D" quality. She is very eager to do well. You are afraid that if you give her a "D" she will get discouraged and give up. It is time for mid-term grades; you should:
    1. give her a "D" and ask her if she would like to make an appointment to discuss ways of improving
    2. give her a "C" because she is doing well if you take into account the educational barriers she is facing.
    3. talk to her and encourage her to drop the class and enroll in an easier program of study.

  9. Which of the following has not been heard of?
    1. a clinical psychologist who is totally deaf.
    2. a medical doctor who is quadriplegic.
    3. a person with no arms who is a barber.
    4. a biomedical engineer who can barely read or write due to severe dyslexia.
    5. all of the above.
    6. none of the above.

  10. You are in a restaurant and you notice two people who are deaf communicating silently in sign language. When a waitress goes to their table, one person gives his order out loud, but his voice is strange, hard to understand, and too loud for the quiet restaurant. The second person does not speak, but points to items on the menu. You conclude that:
    1. the first person is only deaf while the second person is deaf-mute.
    2. the first person is mentally retarded as well as deaf.
    3. the first person has better speech than the second and speaks for both of them.
    4. some people who are deaf like to use their voices, others can speak, but prefer to communicate silently.

  11. Your child watches an old movie on TV. At the end of the movie a couple who are in love and have been engaged to be married tearfully break their engagement because the man has had an accident and is now quadriplegic. Your child doesn't fully understand why the couple had to break the engagement. You explain that:
    1. because of the accident the man would not be able to be a father and would not be able to be a husband to the woman.
    2. because of the accident the man won't be able to lead a normal life and will need to live in an institution where he can be taken care of.
    3. you're not sure why the movie ended that way; you think they could have gotten married and had a fine life.
    4. some movies are old and reflect inaccurate information and assumptions, i.e., that a man with a disability couldn't support a wife; that a wife needs to be supported; and that people with disabilities don't have sexual needs.
    5. both a and b above.
    6. both c and d above.

  12. The DuPont company has conducted studies of its employees with disabilities over a period of 25 years. Which of the following statements do you think most accurately reflects the results of these studies?
    1. employees with disabilities ranked higher than others in safety, job duties and attendance.
    2. employees with disabilities ranked the same as other employees in areas of safety, job duties and attendance.
    3. in comparison to other employees, employees with disabilities ranked slightly higher on safety, the same on job duties, and slightly lower on attendance.
    4. in comparison to other employees, employees with disabilities ranked slightly lower on safety and job duties but higher on attendance.
    5. employees with disabilities ranked almost as high as other employees in the areas of safety, job duties and attendance.

  13. Which of the following disabilities prevent a person from getting a driver's license?
    1. deafness
    2. learning disability
    3. quadriplegia
    4. blindness
    5. epilepsy
    6. a and d above
    7. all of the above

  14. After explaining a complex point, you turn to your coworkers and say, "Do you see what I mean?" As soon as the words are out of your mouth, you wonder if it was inappropriate to use that phrase since one of the people you are talking to is blind. At this point you should:
    1. apologize for choosing an inappropriate phrase and continue with the conversation, avoiding all future use of such phrases.
    2. continue with the conversation without commenting on having used the word "see" so as not to embarrass your coworker, but make a note to yourself to avoid using the word "see" around a person who is blind again.
    3. continue talking as you always do, not worrying about whether or not you use words like "see", "walk" or "hear" around people with disabilities.
    4. ask your coworker who is blind if you should avoid using the word "see" when you are in conversations with him in the future.

Answer Section
  1. b) explain to your children that the man has a disability and, if they want to know more, ask him if he would mind briefly telling your children what that means.

    The curiosity of children about disability is natural and should not be discouraged or apologized for. Much of our discomfort with disabilities as adults is a result of having been trained as children to avoid people with disabilities, not to look at them and not to talk to them. The only way for children to learn to interact naturally and comfortably with people who are disabled is for them to ask honest questions and receive honest answers.

    However, you should also be sensitive to the desires of the person who is disabled. Many people would be quite willing to talk with your children briefly. In fact, many would be especially pleased to see a parent who encourages children to interact with them naturally. However, not all people with disabilities would be willing to talk with your children and even those who are willing will not always have the time or inclination. Therefore, you should not be surprised if you are rebuffed upon occasion when choosing this response.

    You may consider contacting local organizations of people with disabilities to ask if there are awareness programs that you and/or your children could attend in order to increase your exposure to and knowledge of disabilities. This would decrease the likelihood that your children would be so surprised and curious when they encounter a person with a disability.

  2. c) you have just met a person in a bad mood.

    People with disabilities are as varied in personality, mood and temperament as other people. You cannot learn a set of rules "for dealing with people with disabilities," follow them faithfully, and expect never to offend a person with a disability. In this case, you just met someone who either does not like to be offered assistance or someone who happened to be in a bad mood for receiving assistance at that particular moment. However, that does not mean that you were in error by offering assistance. Do not assume from one experience that all people with disabilities would prefer that you not offer assistance. Many would be grateful for the offer. Some would think that you are rude or insensitive if you don't offer to help. You won't know until you ask.

    Although there are no rules to follow to ensure that you won't offend, there are some guidelines that will decrease the chances of offending. First, when you see a person who looks like they could use assistance, ask them if they would like assistance. Don't assume from one experience that all people with disabilities would refuse help. If they do indicate that they would like assistance, ask them what you can do for them and how they would like it done. Again, don't assume you know what they want done, or the best way of doing it. This is particularly true of any personal assistance you may offer (e.g., help with putting on a coat). When you think a person with a disability needs assistance, offer it as you would offer assistance to anyone. There is no need to be overly helpful, cautious, patronizing, or sympathetic because the person is disabled. Your offer may be received with gratitude, turned down politely, or sometimes, perceived as an insult.

  3. b) airplane pilot

    I have never found a reference to an airplane pilot who is blind. This does not mean that a person who is blind absolutely couldn't fly a plane, nor that it has never happened. But to the best of my knowledge it hasn't happened yet.

    George Covington, a professional photographer who is blind, has written a photography manual for individuals with impaired vision, Let Your Camera Do the Seeing (published by the Council of Citizens with Low Vision, 1211 Connecticut Avenue N.W., Suite 506, Washington, D.C. 20036). People with severely impaired vision can use photography as a tool by studying greatly enlarged copies of their pictures.

    People who are blind have pursued chemistry, biology, engineering and a vast array of other sciences. You will find references to such scientists, including chemistry professors, in the Resource Directory of Handicapped Scientists, compiled by J. Alsford Owens, M. Ross Redden and J. Welsh Brown (AAAS Publication No. 78-13, 1978, Office of Opportunities in Science, 1776 Massachusetts Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036).

  4. c) ask the woman to spell the word, or use an alternate word or phrase.

    The only option that really is not good is to go on with the conversation without having understood what was being said. Most (not all) people with speech impairments are used to having to repeat themselves and would rather try to help you understand than have you pretend you understand when you don't. Remember that you are probably more frustrated and embarrassed by the process than the person with the speech impairment. You will look more foolish if you give an inappropriate answer because you pretended to understand than if you ask the person to repeat over and over, to use an alternate phrase, to spell, or to do whatever is necessary so that the two of you can continue genuinely sharing in dialogue.

    If neither of the above options work, you may want to resort to option d--asking someone else to interpret--or option e--making a joke. Asking someone else to interpret can be useful if there is someone available who can understand the person better than you can. However, it is not good to rely consistently on an interpreter rather than learning to relax and understand the person yourself. You should also not use an interpreter simply because you are in too much of a rush to take the time to understand the person yourself. Making a joke is useful if you are talking with someone with whom you have good rapport. A joke might help relax both of you, therefore easing the communication. However, a joke may also offend. It depends both on your ability to make appropriate jokes and the other person's ability to laugh at jokes. The key here is that the joke is as much on your inability to understand as it is on the other person's inability to convey the message clearly. You have a mutual problem.

  5. c) neither of the above.

    The idea of having consumers involved in organizing the telethon is a good one, as is the idea of talking to a consumer so that you will be more informed. However, your neighbor in this scenario is mentally ill and the fund raiser is designed to benefit people who are mentally retarded. Mental illness is frequently and inappropriately confused with mental retardation.

    People with mental illness have emotional problems and may experience inability to cope with the problems and stresses of life. This is not caused by their intelligence or their capacity to learn. People with a variety of intellectual capacities can experience mental illness. On the other hand, people who are mentally retarded develop at a below average rate and experience unusual difficulty in learning, they learn more slowly than others. Although a person who is retarded is not necessarily mentally ill they, like anyone else, may become emotionally disturbed.

    Consumers with disabilities should be involved in developing services, programs and fund raisers that affect them. Too often programs are developed in a patronizing way for people with disabilities and end up perpetuating dependency and stereotypes. People with disabilities have many strengths that should be drawn on and enhanced. Although the public may be responsive to donating money for "those poor, helpless people," society as a whole will benefit more if the theme of fund raisers is one of investing in the capabilities of people rather than one of taking care of the helpless.

    You should therefore encourage the participation of consumers in organizing services and benefits that affect them. Don't assume, however, that all people with disabilities are interested in or affected by any one service or benefit and don't assume that a person with one disability will automatically be interested in helping with a program designed for people with a different disability.

  6. b) ask the person who is deaf for permission to ask a question of the interpreter; then ask the interpreter if he will have free time to talk to you later.

    When on duty, a sign language interpreter's professional responsibility is to translate communication, without editing or interjecting personal comments. The interpreter in this situation is therefore bound to interpret your comments and cannot engage in personal conversations particularly ones that exclude the person who is deaf. Even more important, however, is the point that to talk in front of a person who is deaf without translating the conversation is the same as whispering in front of a hearing person: it is rude, whether or not the conversation pertains to them. We all like to know what is going on around us, even if we are not being addressed directly.

    On the other hand, occasions do arise when you desire to talk personally with the interpreter. In this case, you should first request permission from the person who is deaf to address the interpreter directly. It is courteous to do this since the interpreter is on duty. You should then proceed just as you would if you wanted to ask one member of a group of hearing people for a convenient opportunity to speak privately. However, don't be surprised if the interpreter still signs your question and his response.

    Essentially, when communicating in situations involving a sign language interpreter, you will do best if you simply talk with the person who is deaf as you would anyone else. You should not address the interpreter, but rather the person who is deaf. If you say to the interpreter, "Would you please tell Sue that..." the interpreter will probably turn to Sue and sign, "Would you please tell Sue that..." Instead, you should look directly at the person who is deaf and say, "Sue, I want to tell you that..." The interpreter will sign for you while the person who is deaf watches both you and the interpreter, thus gaining a full understanding of the conversation.

  7. c) 35% or less

    Estimates as to the percentage of speech that is visible on the lips is 35% at the very highest. Some sounds are not visible on the lips; others are indistinguishable sounds (i.e., compare kiss, sis, and hiss, mother and brother, man, ban and pan). Therefore, even those people with the best skills in lip reading will be unable to distinguish many words. In these instances meaning is often gathered from context, but much of the content of a communication may be missed. Poor enunciation, moustaches, cigarettes or a tendency to turn ones back to an audience will complicate comprehension further.

    For many people who become deaf prior to age 6 or so, English is a second language. Their first language is often American Sign Language (ASL), a language with a linguistic structure different from that of English. Many deaf people have mastered the English language as well as ASL. Others have not. Those that haven't may have limited skills in reading or writing English that are not reflective of their actual level of intelligence or achievement. The range of English language competency varies among people who are deaf just as it varies among hearing people.

    Despite difficulties, do not hesitate to attempt to communicate with someone with a hearing impairment. Speak normally without exaggerating your lip movements; people are trained to read normal mouth movements. If you have difficulty with the lip reading, you may use gestures, facial expressions, pantomime, pen and paper, interpreters, or all of the above. You may feel strange at first, but your efforts will be appreciated. A sincere attempt to communicate generally meets with success.

    Whenever you know that you will be meeting with a person who is deaf, or whenever you are arranging a public meeting or event, do as much as possible to arrange for a certified sign language interpreter to be present (unless the person who is deaf makes a different request). Some cities have agencies that facilitate contact and scheduling with interpreters. To assist you in locating the agency closest to you, contact your local Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

  8. a) give her a "D" and ask her if she would like to make an appointment to discuss ways of improving.

    It is both dishonest and patronizing to give a person with a disability a better grade than he or she has earned. In their demand for reasonable accommodation, people with disabilities and their advocates are not requesting special favors or relaxed standards. If a student is not competing adequately in a given situation, the situation needs to be explored honestly.

    The person may be doing poorly because of the presence of artificial barriers that can be modified or eliminated. For example, this student may be doing poorly because of a lack of access to critical classroom material (i.e., an inaccessible reserve reading room, a lecture course that is not interpreted in sign language, books that have not yet been put on cassette tape or made into braille, testing procedures that have not been modified). Giving a better grade than deserved, or encouraging the student to try an easier course, would remove her from this learning situation before the situation had been explored. In some cases you might never discover that her poor performance may lie not in her disability or in her aptitude, but in artificial but overlooked educational barriers that could be modified. By making modifications that eliminate competitive disadvantages, student performance often can improve without sacrificing standards or granting special or unfair privileges.

    On the other hand, this student may be doing poorly because she was not adequately prepared for college level work. Rather than passing the student on, you should give her honest feedback and help prepare her for the reality that sooner or later she may need to do some remedial work. If other professors are passing this student on, giving her better grades than she deserves, she may choose not to believe you. However, at some point she will need to come to grips with the reality of her performance level. The sooner this occurs, the easier it will be to remedy.

    Finally, this student may be doing poorly because she is not college material. If she really wants to continue with college, despite feedback that she may not succeed, she should be allowed to try. All of us learn as much from our failures as from our successes. People with disabilities have often been sheltered from failure and have thus missed valuable learning opportunities. Students with disabilities should not be set up for failure, but they should not be treated as exceptionally fragile either. We all have a "right to fail."

  9. c) a person with no arms who is a barber

    Although I have never heard of a barber who has no arms, after seeing the film "A Day in the Life of Bonnie Consolo," I do believe that if a person with no arms wanted to become a barber it would be possible (available from Barr Films, P.O. Box 5667, Pasadena, CA 91107--16 minute, 16mm color film). The attitudes of potential clients would present far more difficulties than the mechanics of using one's feet to do the job. In the film Bonnie Consolo trims her son's hair, bakes homemade bread slices tomatoes, writes checks and drives her car all with her feet.

    You can find the names and addresses of clinical psychologists who are deaf, medical doctors who are quadriplegics and many other scientists who are disabled by consulting the Resource Directory of Handicapped Scientists compiled and edited by Janette Alsford Owens, Martha Ross Redden, and Janet Welsh Brown (AAAS Publication No. 78-13, 1978, Office of Opportunities in Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1776 Massachusetts Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036).

    A little research can uncover endless examples of people with disabilities who have accomplished extraordinary things. While opening ourselves to recognizing the potential of people with disabilities it is also important to avoid creating new "super-crip" expectations or assumptions that all people with disabilities are courageous, determined or talented.People with disabilities are as varied as other people: some are exceptional, many are ordinary. Not all talented people with disabilities will choose to pursue professional careers or succeed when they do.

  10. d) some people who are deaf like to use their voices; others can speak, but may prefer to communicate silently.

    People with deafness have voices; they are not mute. The loss of vocal production can occur in anyone, but it is a separate disability and is not automatically associated with deafness. Terms such as deaf-mute or deaf and dumb reflect the inaccurate thinking of an era when few people were given opportunities to learn how to use their voices. People who are deaf have impaired hearing, but their impaired hearing has nothing to do with the quality of their intelligence, their vocal cords, or their eyesight.

    Learning to use one's voice to speak effectively requires time, effort, and concentration, and is especially difficult for people who lost their hearing in infancy. Some people who are deaf choose to use their voices regularly. Others decide that this is not the best option for them. Not all deaf people who choose to use their voices will sound like hearing people when they talk. Hearing people monitor the volume, tone and expression of their speech by listening to their own voice when speaking. People who are deaf cannot do this and thus sometimes have voices that sound strange or unusual to others. Occasionally a person who is deaf's speech may sound similar to the speech of a person who is retarded or the speech of a person from a foreign country. However, it is not accurate to assume anything about a person's intelligence or abilities by the sound of that person's voice or by that person's decision not to use his or her voice. In this case, the person who is pointing to items on the menu is effectively "speaking" for himself, even though he is not using a voice to do so.

  11. f) you're not sure why the movie ended that way; you think they could have gotten married and had a fine life; and some movies are old and reflect inaccurate information and assumptions, i.e., that a man with a disability couldn't support a wife; that a wife needs to be supported; and that people with disabilities don't have sexual needs.

    Two common myths are that people with disabilities don't have sexual desires or abilities and that they can't be parents. First, whether or not a person with a disability can biologically parent a child varies from disability to disability and person to person. Many people with disabilities can have biological children, For the others an inability to have biological children certainly does not preclude one from being a successful parent. More and more frequently people with disabilities are having children, adopting children, and winning custody of children. The sexual needs and desires of people with disabilities are not different than those of other people. The ability to "perform" sexually varies depending on the disability and the person. In general, sexual performance is less impaired than is often assumed.

    Of greater significance is the realm of relationships and sexuality which goes far beyond the ability to perform specific sex acts. Using definitions of sexuality and sexual needs accepted by the field of sex therapy one would find very little that would be seriously affected by the presence of disability. Many people with disabilities lead sexually satisfying lives and are equally able to satisfy the sexual needs of their partners. And, of course people with disabilities do not need to look only toward other people with disabilities in their search for a partner. A popular movie which portrays these issues accurately and sensitively is Coming Home starring Jane Fonda and John Voight.

  12. c) in comparison to other employees, employees with disabilities ranked slightly higher on safety, the same on job duties, and slightly lower on attendance.

    DuPont collected new data in 1981; this data confirmed the results found in earlier studies. Supervisors at DuPont were asked to rate their employees with disabilities and a matching sample of other employees in the areas of safety, performance of job duties and attendance. Ninety-six percent of the employees with disabilities were rated average or above average by their supervisors in the area of safety whereas only 92 percent of the other employees were rated average or above average in safety. Supervisors rated 92 percent of employees with disabilities average or above on performance of job duties in comparison with 91 percent of others. In the area of attendance, 85 percent of employees with disabilities were rated average or above while 91 percent of other employees were rated average or above. You can receive a copy of DuPont's report on this study, Equal To the Task by contacting: E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, Public Affairs Department, 8084 DuPont Building, Wilmington, DE 19898.

    This confirms what employers across the country have already learned: people with disabilities placed in appropriate jobs are just as reliable, productive and safe as other employees. As with anyone, some workers will be better than others. The central point is that a person's disability is not related to whether or not that particular person will make a good employee.

  13. d) blindness

    As far as I know, people who are blind cannot get driver's licenses. However, many people who are blind have taken cross country bicycle trips. I have even heard a report that in Sweden people who are blind drive trucks in restricted settings by using earphones. I haven't been able to verify this report. (Editors note: there are adaptive devices using magnification which enable people with certain types of vision impairments to drive)

    People who are deaf can and do drive cars. Although hearing people usually rely on their hearing for driving cues, hearing is certainly not necessary. A hearing person driving in summer with the windows up and radio on is no different from a person who is deaf. Having a learning disability does not preclude a person from driving a car. People with learning disabilities have normal intelligence, eyesight and hearing, but have trouble learning in the way others do because of difficulties in understanding or using spoken or written language or performing mathematical operations. Many people with learn- ing disabilities learn to drive successfully; others don't. The extent to which a learning disability interferes with the ability to drive varies from person to person since there are many types of learning disabilities. Some people with learning disabilities may need to take longer to learn how to drive and to relax while driving. Each person needs to find the compensation techniques and learning style that works best.

    People with quadriplegia, people with no arms and even people with severe cerebral palsy are able to drive with the use of adaptive technology. Technology has developed to the point that almost anyone with the desire and with the access to sufficient funds to purchase the hand or foot controls best for them can drive their own vehicle.

    Epilepsy is a condition that can very often be controlled through medication. Laws vary from state to state but generally after one year without a seizure and with a doctor's signature, a person with epilepsy can get a regular driver's license. Sometimes states also require the license to be renewed more frequently than the standard time period so as to check to be sure the person's seizures are still under control.

  14. c) continue talking as you always do, not worrying about whether or not you use words like "see," "walk," or "hear" around people with disabilities.

    All languages have expressions with meanings different from a literal translation. Phrases like "do you see what I mean" or "I hear what you are saying" do not literally refer to seeing or hearing. Because of this, people with disabilities tend to use these phrases as much as others. A person who is blind can "see what you mean" because the phrase really means "do you understand my point; am I being clear?"

    A person who uses a wheelchair can "take a walk around the park" because that phrase refers to moving around on a stroll more than it refers to the actual process of placing one foot in front of another. Sometimes a person who uses a wheelchair may prefer to use the phrase "take a wheel around the park." However, it would be inappropriate to carefully monitor your speech to eliminate use of any words or phrases such as this. That would tend to produce an unnatural stiffness and awkwardness in your speech. Relaxing and talking naturally when you are with people who are disabled is essential to acceptance of disabilities and people who have disabilities. Being overly conscious of disability can cause discomfort and awkwardness on everyone's part.

    Although it is not necessary to stiffly screen out use of any idioms with physical references when talking to people with disabilities, it is useful to examine the labels we use when referring to people with disabilities to identify potentially inaccurate assumptions underlying such labels. People who are deaf have been referred to as "deaf-mute" or as "deaf and dumb;" people who use wheelchairs have been referred to as "invalids;" people who are retarded have been referred to as "poor things" and "vegetables." These phrases are inaccurate and reflect the stereotypical thinking of a time when little was known about disabilities and the capabilities of people with disabilities. Besides eliminating use of inaccurate labels, it is also appropriate to eliminate use of phrases that undercut a person's dignity. Referring to a person with a disability as "wheelchair bound" or a "cripple" is neither accurate or respectful.

    In short, some changes do need to occur in our use of language. However, it is not necessary to bend over backwards, becoming self-conscious and stiffly avoiding use of common idioms. Speak naturally and ask what phrase is most appropriate if you are unsure.


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