Honoring 25 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act

By Felicia Wright, Employment Security Human Resources

Employment Security is an equal opportunity employer and provider of employment services. It also is home to the Governor’s Committee for Disability Issues and Employment.

I sat in a class recently and noticed my friend and colleague (let’s call her Jean) sitting on the other side of the room, squinting at slides our instructor was showing. Jean has a vision disability. Seeing her struggle to read, I got up, walked to the light switch and turned up the lights on her side of the room.

During our break, Jean was clearly upset. Then, she really let me have it. She does not want to be treated differently because she has low-vision disability, she said. How dare I treat her as if she is helpless! She can turn up the lights herself, she said.

This was an embarrassing but enlightening moment for me. I learned never to make assumptions about people or their disabilities. I don’t assume what someone wants, what he or she feels, or what is best for him or her.

Now, if I have a question about how to help, what language or terminology to use, or what assistance to offer, I ask. The person you want to help should be your first and best resource. People with disabilities have different preferences. Just because one person with a disability prefers something one way doesn’t mean that another person with a disability prefers it the same way.

According to the Utah Developmental Disability Counsel, about 49 million Americans (one out of every five) have a disability. Some people may be uncomfortable interacting with people with disabilities, afraid they’ll say the wrong thing. For example, you may ask yourself, “How do I talk to someone in a wheelchair?” or “How do I interact with someone who is blind or deaf?”

Even though it sounds obvious, the most important thing to remember is that they are people — not a disability. What’s important is that you respect them and see beyond their disability.

  • Individuals with disabilities are whole people.
  • They expect to be treated with the same dignity and respect that you do.
  • Just because someone has a disability does not mean he or she is disabled.

The University of Northern Iowa’s Office of Compliance and Equity Management gives some helpful etiquette:

  • When giving directions to someone with a vision impairment, make sure you consider things such as the weather, locations of ramps, curbs and other physical obstacles that may hinder travel.
  • When conversing with individuals who have difficulty speaking, let them complete their own sentences. Be patient and do not try to speak for them. If you don’t understand them, tell them so and allow them to respond.
  • Don’t shout at a hearing impaired person unless they request it. Speak in a normal tone and make sure your lips are visible.
  • Don’t pet or feed service animals or guide dogs. They’re working.

Here is some additional guidance.

  • Be aware of personal space. Wheelchairs, walkers and canes are part of someone’s personal space.  Don’t touch, move, or lean on these mobility aids.
  • Use “people-first” language when referring to people with disabilities: Put the person first and the disability second. For example, say “a man who is blind” rather than “a blind man;” or “a woman who uses a wheelchair” instead of “a wheelchair-bound woman.”
  • Avoid potentially offensive terms or euphemisms. Commonly accepted terms include “people with disabilities” and “a person with a visual/hearing/physical/speech/cognitive impairment.”  Many people find annoying or offensive: “restricted to a wheelchair,” “victim of,” “suffers from,” “retarded,” “deformed,” “crippled,” “handicapped” and “physically challenged.” If you are unsure, ask the person with a disability what terminology he or she prefers.
  • Speak normally. Some people have a tendency to talk louder and slower to people with disabilities. Don’t assume that a person with one disability also has a cognitive disability or is hard of hearing.
  • When speaking to someone who is blind, it’s OK to use the words and phrases “see,” “look” or “Do you see what I mean?”
  • Don’t be offended if someone declines your offer to help.

People with disabilities show us what really matters in life, what it means to be human, what it means to be accepted simply for being, not because of what we can and cannot do. Their contributions enrich our communities as they share their lives.

This month, we celebrate 25 years since the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. At Employment Security, we continue to be committed to creating a work environment in which employees with disabilities can thrive.



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