Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was established in 1990, great strides have been made in educating people how best to interact with those disabilities. Example: “Handicapped” used to be the preferred term; now it’s better to say “person with a disability.”
To interact professionally, start by treating everyone with respect and consideration, but don’t display pity, be overly helpful or ask a lot of questions. If they want to talk about it, they will. If they need help with their wheelchair, they will ask for it.
A good friend of mine finds it annoying when someone starts pushing her wheelchair without asking permission. In addition, she always feels more comfortable talking to someone who pulls up a chair to speak with her so they can make eye contact and enjoy the conversation more. She also appreciates it when someone offers a handshake, just as with anyone else they meet.
I’m often asked about what to do if you meet someone who can’t shake their right hand. Typically, the person with the disability will suggest the best way to make a professional greeting (such as a left hand shake or shoulder pat). After all, they deal with the situation on a daily basis and know how to make others feel at ease.
There are many other types of disabilities, but it’s safe to say that everyone, disability or not, likes to be treated with kindness, respect and consideration.
You can almost never go wrong if you follow the Golden Rule.
—Suzanne Willis, Southwest Florida etiquette consultant and public relations director of The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.