Greeting People: Disability Etiquette Tips

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"...when we heard from two different visitors that no one talked to them when they came, we realized we weren't as friendly as we thought. It's no comfort to know, from visiting other Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches, that we're not alone in finding this a challenge."
—Sharon Blevins (Uncommon Denomination)

Regretfully, we are sometimes aloof with able-bodied visitors, and even more distant when people with disabilities come to church. Lack of knowledge about how to act can lead to uneasiness when meeting a person who has a disability. An understanding of "disability etiquette" will definitely help, as will having enthusiastic greeters who have both an understanding of disability etiquette and a comfortable way of interacting with people as they enter the church.

Basic Points of Disability Etiquette for Greeters

  • Move to offer assistance only after asking if it is wanted. Many people with disabilities prefer to maintain as much independence as possible. If they want help, ask for specific instructions.
  • A smile along with a spoken greeting is always appropriate. A handshake is not a standard greeting for everyone.
  • Speak directly to a person with a disability, not just to people with him or her.
  • Relax. Anyone can make mistakes. Keep a sense of humor and a willingness to communicate.

If a person uses a wheelchair...

  • Do not push, lean on, or hold onto a person's wheelchair unless the person asks you to. The wheelchair is part of his/her personal space.
  • Offer to tell where accessible seating areas and rest rooms are located.
  • When giving directions to a person in a wheelchair, consider distance and physical obstacles (curbs, doors, stairs, etc.).

If a person has a disability that affects learning, intelligence, or brain function...

  • Keep communication simple. Rephrase comments or questions as needed, using different words the second or third time, to clarify.
  • Stay focused on the person as he or she responds to you.
  • Allow the person time to tell or show you what he or she wants.

If a person is deaf or uses hearing aids...

  • Let the person take the lead in establishing the communication mode, such as lip-reading, sign language, or writing notes.
  • Talk directly to the person, even when a sign language interpreter is present.
  • If the person lip-reads face him or her directly; speak clearly and at a moderate speed.

If a person has a disability that affects speech...

  • Pay attention, be patient, and wait for the person to complete a word or thought. Do not finish it for the person.
  • if you do not understand ask the person to repeat what is said,. Tell the person what you heard and see if it is close to what s/he is saying.
  • Be prepared for various devices or techniques used to enhance or augment speech. Don't be afraid to communicate with someone who uses pen and paper, an alphabet board or a computer that speaks.

If a person is blind or has a disability that seriously affects vision...

  • Don't leave the person without excusing yourself first.
  • When asked to guide someone with a sight disability, never push or pull the person. Allow him or her to take your arm, then walk slightly ahead.
  • Be specific when describing the location of objects.
  • Don't pet or distract a guide dog. The dog is always working. It is not a pet.

Other Hospitality Tips

Parking spaces. People who do not have disabled parking tags or license plates must not use parking places designated for people with disabilities. If there aren't enough designated parking places, consider adding "valet parking" to your Sunday mornings.

Name tags. People with memory problems sometimes stop coming to church because they cannot remember the names of people they know and they are embarrassed to be greeted and not know the names of the people who are greeting them. Name tags printed in large, legible letters, worn by everybody, every week—it's an easy solution to an embarrassing and marginalizing barrier to hospitality.