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Disability Etiquette and People-First Language

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Man in wheelchair with child at playground People who use wheelchairs typically think of the wheelchairs as being part of their personal body space. (Photo: mikanaka/Shutterstock)

As brokers and financial advisors, you understand that discussing life insurance policies and estate planning with clients is a sensitive undertaking.

But, often, when you’re talking to people with disabilities and special needs and their caregivers about these same issues, you may be uncomfortable because you are unsure about how to interact with members of this community. Indeed, the need to create a mutual comfort level with people with disabilities and their caregivers when discussing their financial future is even more acute than is typically the case.

(Related: How Stephen Hlibok Became Merrill’s First Deaf Advisor)

Why? Most of time it’s because you don’t want to appear rude or offend a person with a disability with your words or actions.

In fact, if you’re not aware of how to interact with this community, there is a risk of alienating the client as well as the members of their family who may be caregivers.

What’s key is showing genuine empathy and kindness toward the disability community. To ignore this approach is simply bad for business.

According to a survey that assessed people’s attitudes toward kindness in their daily lives and in the workplace, almost all Americans (98%) agree that it’s important for companies to treat their employees, customers and business partners with respect and kindness; and 95% believe that it’s important for companies to demonstrate kindness to all individuals, regardless of ability. And, in an especially relevant finding for brokers and financial advisors, 9 in 10 Americans also believe financial services firms should treat all Americans with respect and kindness.

Understanding the following simple guidelines about disability etiquette and people-first language will help you feel at ease when interacting with people with disabilities and special needs and their caregivers, while signaling that you are part of the community. In fact, the following simple guidelines can help you successfully launch your practice into a large and underserved market.

Disability Etiquette

When speaking about someone who has a disability, consider whether the person’s disabilities are relevant for the conversation. Describe their achievements, abilities and individual qualities, including their role in the family or job, first.

When you’re meeting someone, treat people with disabilities as you would treat others — a hand shake, a hug, etc. When you want to have a conversation with a person with a disability, do not speak to caregivers, helpers or sign language interpreters. Speak directly to the person whom you want to talk to.

If you want to help someone, first ask; don’t just assume. A person with a disability isn’t necessarily chronically sick or unhealthy, and they are probably used to doing everyday tasks alone, even if it may seem challenging for them from your perspective.

A person’s equipment is their personal body space. Treat it as such — do not lean on a wheel chair or touch a walker. It’s just as rude as adjusting someone’s hair or clothing.

When greeting a person who has a visual impairment, describe everything visually, as needed, using a normal tone of voice. For example, “My name is Jane and I’m standing to your right. Next to me on my right is my assistant John.” If you need to relocate, offer your arm so you can guide them respectfully. Using specific directions, such as “left in 10 feet”, would be appreciated.

If you interact with a person who has hearing loss, write a note, tap them on the shoulder or use hand gestures. Don’t shout at them. If they don’t have an interpreter, look directly at them and speak clearly, slowly and expressively to establish if they read lips.

People-First Language

Using outdated, offensive or improper language around people with disabilities and their caregivers is more than just a faux pas. Your words can sound pitying, fearful or negative and could alienate you from people in this community. For example, the word “handicapped” first was believed to have been used to refer to individuals who have disabilities when Civil War veterans’ injuries prevented them from working were begging on the streets with “cap in hand.” Because it is associated with an image of a person begging for money, using the term is offensive. Other words to avoid: abnormal, afflicted, deformed, and victim, among others.

To best present yourself to this community, become familiar with the terms and etiquette tips in this guide. Remember, people with disabilities want to be treated just like everyone else; they do not want charity or pity.

People with disabilities have different preferences about how to refer to their disability. Some see their disability as essential to who they are and prefer to be identified with their disability first; others prefer people-first language. The best way to interact with people with disabilities? Simply ask the person what their preference is.

Acting compassionately is a key expression of empathy and kindness, and it is simply the responsible thing to do. Being sensitive to how to interact with people with disabilities ultimately could be good for your business.

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Jessica Tuman is vice president of the Voya Cares Center of Excellence at Voya Financial. Voya Cares helps financial professionals and others understand, employ and better serve people with special needs and disabilities and their caregivers.