It's not unusual for people to have a hard time knowing what to say or what to do with someone they feel is different than them. But those differences often come down to perception. Here are just some of the ways we can bridge the gap between those without disabilities and those with them. Spoiler, it mostly comes down to the Golden Rule: treat others as you would have others treat you.
- Assumptions are a big no-no. Just as no one knows better than you what you can and cannot do, it's the same for people with disabilities.
- Just ask. Not sure if someone needs help? Not sure how to term someone's disability? Ask.
- Don't treat people as if they are invisible. Don't address comments or questions to nearby companions (or, worse, strangers).
- Don’t wrap yourself around the axles of terminology. People-first terminology ("person with a disability" versus "disabled" or—yikes—"crippled") is a good default, but don’t get bent out of shaped if an individual prefers something different. (See #1).
- Personal space is personal space. Don’t grab a wheelchair without the owner’s permission or reach down to pet a service animal (consider the animal an extension of personal space) or take someone’s arm to help him or her cross the street. Don’t touch people or their things without permission. (See #2).
- Don’t assume that if you can’t see a disability it isn't there. Mobility needs, mental illness, breathing limitations, hearing impairment, limited use of upper extremities—all of these may be invisible to you. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
- Empathy is your friend. Think about which directions work if you can’t see, what verbal cues you might need if you couldn’t hear, whether or not you would want to be grilled every time you use a "handicapped" spot.
Communication is always a two-way street. Russell Lehmann, an autistic poet who prefers the term "autistic" over "person with autism" (See #2), sums it up nicely: "Both sides of this issue are still trying to understand each other, and as long as we all continue to try to understand, that's really all we can ask of one another."