Monday, June 16, 2014

Etiquette for Graciously Meeting Those with Physical Disabilities

Franklin Delano Roosevelt with a friend's daughter. 
On "The Handicapped"... "In meeting the handicapped there are special elements to be taken into consideration if one is to treat them with the understanding and the courtesy that are the basis for all proper social behavior.  One who is sincerely interested in human communication, in being genuinely helpful, will pay only so much attention to the disability as is necessary to give the other the help he needs and wants, will not call undue attention to it by extravagant gestures of sympathy and elaborate offers of undesired help, will give such help as is asked for or indicated in a matter-of-course way, neither evading nor emphasizing the fact of the disability, and will in general keep his companionship with the other on a basis that will keep communication and companionship between the handicapped and the unhandicapped as nearly normal as possible." From Eleanor Roosevelt's, 1963 "Common Sense Book of Etiquette"

More often we are seeing disabled people in working environments.  Whether they are bagging our groceries or working behind a desk, they are providing a valuable service whatever that may be.  Always show the utmost kindness as they are fellow human beings like us.  This should be obvious but unfortunately silly fears can creep in.

Linda Fitzpatrick, founder of The Disability Etiquette Training Company, outlined some good points about the principles of handshakes with people who have disabilities.

1. Always offer to shake hands.

2. Smile, make eye contact and be at eye level.

3. Be sure you have the full attention of the person with whom you wish to shake hands.

4. If a person with a disability is with a companion, shake hands with both people. However, if there is a service animal, do not pet the animal.

5. By necessity, a handshake involves touching, so if the person seems touch averse, be prepared to be extra gentle or to step back. A simple touching of fingers may be enough to convey the customary respect.

6. Take your time and use the opportunity to form a thoughtful connection.

7. Most important, see the person first, not the disability.

These are good foundations for meeting those with a variety of disabilities.


When shaking hands with a person in a wheelchair, bend or find a way to sit so that you can converse eye-to-eye. It can cause neck strain for the person in a wheelchair if they have to look up. My husband is permanently confined to a wheelchair and I know this can bother him. Never touch the wheelchair or rest a foot on the wheels as it’s an extension of their personal space.
Whether you are conversing through sign language, or speech, you are still conversing ~ "Good manners is the art of making those people easy with whom we converse. Whoever makes the fewest people uneasy is the best bred in the room." Jonathan Swift

A person who is deaf or hard of hearing may not realize that you’ve extended your hand. Give a slight wave or a very gentle tap on the shoulder to gain her attention. People with hearing disabilities often complain about being handled too roughly.
"There is hardly any personal defect which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile one to." Jane Austen

If you are greeting someone who is blind, ask if you can shake their hand and he will be delighted to do so. Depending on where you are, giving simple instructions can be very helpful. For instance, “There’s a table to your left and a chair to the right where you could sit.”
"It doesn't matter how you get knocked down in life... All that matters is that you got to get up." Ben Affleck
What if the person is an amputee? Please never look shocked…regain composure quickly. Extend your hand and let the person guide you. A small gesturing of touch is an acknowledgement of the other person and shows respect.

Children often have the best attitude. They aren’t fearful and will ask questions. My husband has no issue with a small child asking him why he’s in that wheelchair. He explains that he had a bad sporting accident and tells them to always play safely. Good judgement and kindly manners will always be effective guides.

By Canadian Contributor Maria Doll ~ An etiquette coach, Maria has been conducting personal consultations, workshops, camps and seminars for children, teens and young adults since 2009.  Her etiquette program and company Leadership Matters has been featured in print, radio & television media. 

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