Interacting with Persons with Disabilities

Are there general guidelines on how to interact with persons who have disabilities?
The most important guideline is to treat persons with disabilities with the same courtesy, dignity and respect that you afford every other person. There is no need to be nervous or apprehensive in talking or working with people with disabilities. Other helpful tips include:

  • Do not make assumptions about the person or disability.
  • Always speak directly to the person in a normal tone and volume, unless requested to do otherwise
  • Do not get anxious if you have to make repeated attempts at listening or speaking to ensure effective communication – simply try again.
  • Do not assume that a person with a disability needs help. If someone appears to be in need of assistance, offer the assistance and if accepted, listen or ask for instructions before you act. Do not be bothered or offended if an offer of assistance is rejected.
  • Generally, assistance with doors is greatly appreciated as long as you are clear of the path of travel.
  • Become very familiar with the court accessibility protocol and any accessibility devices that may be used in the judicial program.
  • Not all disabilities are apparent. However, if someone looks as if he/she is having trouble understanding you, do not ask if the person has a disability. Instead, ask if there is an alternate method of communicating.

Are there terms that are offensive to persons with disabilities or preferred language when referring to persons with disabilities?
Yes. There are terms that are generally offensive to persons with disabilities. For example, handicapped is a term that derived from a perception that persons with disabilities had “cap in hand” seeking charity, and is therefore, thought to be offensive. Terms such as crippled, disabled and deformed carry negative connotations and should also be avoided. Persons should seek to use more positive terms such as accessible, as in “accessible parking” or “accessible restroom,” as opposed to “handicapped.”

In addition, when referring to persons with hearing disabilities, the term for one who cannot hear is “deaf.” The term from someone who has difficulty hearing, but does posses some ability to hear, is “hard of hearing.” The term “hearing impaired” should be avoided, because when it is translated into sign language, it is conveyed as “broken hearing.”

Finally, focus on the person rather than the disability. Instead of referring to “the blind attorney,” refer to the attorney who is blind; instead of “the disabled juror”, use “the juror who is disabled”; instead of “the epileptic”, use “the person with epilepsy.” Using this language, persons with disabilities are identified as persons rather than being identified by their respective disabilities.

How should I interact with a person with a mobility disability?
A person with a mobility disability has partially or completely lost the use of one or more of the person’s limbs. Many such disabilities are visibly apparent, as the individual may rely upon an assistive device such as wheelchairs, crutches, canes or scooters. However, other mobility disabilities, such as arthritis are not as visible, but should be treated equally seriously. Important tips to remember when interacting with someone with a mobility disability:

  • Avoid touching or leaning on a person’s wheelchair, scooter or walking aid without his or her permission, as this is considered part of the person’s personal space.
  • Be aware of reach limits, particularly when you are handing items to such persons. In addition, be prepared to step around a counter to provide service if the counter is at such a height that the person would have difficulty seeing you behind the counter.
  • Provide a chair for someone who may have difficulty standing for a long period of time.
  • Be aware that persons who are not visibly mobility-impaired may have medical needs that impact the ability to move around the courthouse. For example, a person with arthritis or a heart condition may have trouble walking long distances or walking quickly. Chairs or benches may be needed to allow such persons to sit and rest.

What things must be considered when interacting with a person who uses a service animal?
There is no certification process for service animals. Therefore, the current guideline is that if a person represents that an animal is a service animal, you must treat it as such. When a service animal is present, consider the following:

  • Avoid petting or touching the service animal while it is working. Ask before petting or touching the animal.
  • Do not feed a service animal or distract the service animal in any way.
  • Do not separate an individual with a disability from his or her service animal at any time.
  • If the service animal misbehaves or becomes out of the control of the person with the disability, that person is obligated to control the animal.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice authored a brochure about service animals that may be helpful in answer questions regarding service animals in Tennessee Courts.