Communicating with People with Disabilities
by Charles Brown

Fair Housing laws prohibit discrimination against people based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status or handicap (the "protected classes"). Two types of unlawful discrimination apply only to people who with disabilities. One, a Landlord may be required to make reasonable modifications to the premises for a person with a disability. Two, a Landlord may be required to make reasonable accommodations in their rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.

If you are in a situation which requires you to make an accommodation or modification of your premises for a person with a disability, you will probably have extensive interaction with that individual. Do you ever find yourself nervous or uncomfortable when your around a person who is disabled? You don't know exactly what to say or how to act? Do I offer to help the guy using a wheelchair get in his car? Do I offer to shake hands with the lady using crutches when introduced?

Many people without a disability are often uncomfortable in dealing with people having disabilities. They may not have had many friends, co-workers or family members with a disability. Because some people are afraid they will do or say the wrong thing around someone with a disability, they try to avoid the individual with the disability altogether. What is often perceived as discrimination by those in the protected classes is often a communication problem rather than true discrimination. A prospective tenant who is disabled may conclude that you were discriminating against them when the problem was really how you were communicating with them.

The U.S. Department of Labor promotes these "Ten Commandments of Etiquette for Communicating with People with Disabilities":

1. When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter.

2. When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands. (Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.)

3. When meeting a person who is visually impaired, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.

4. If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.

5. Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others. (Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.)

6. Leaning on or hanging on to a person's wheelchair is similar to leaning or hanging on to a person and is generally considered annoying. The chair is part of the personal body space of the person who uses it.

7. Listen attentively when you're talking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for the person. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod or shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond. The response will clue you in and guide your understanding.

8. When speaking with a person who uses a wheelchair or a person who uses crutches, place yourself at eye level in front of the person to facilitate the conversation.

9. To get the attention of a person who is deaf, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly, and expressively to determine if the person can read your lips. Not all people who are deaf can read lips. For those who do lip read, be sensitive to their needs by placing yourself so that you face the light source and keep hands, cigarettes and food away from your mouth when speaking.

10. Relax. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted, common expressions such as "See you later," or "Did you hear about that?" that seems to relate to a person's disability. Don't be afraid to ask questions when you're unsure of what to do.

When speaking about people with disabilities, use "person first" language. People with disabilities should be referred to as people first , their disability is secondary. For example, instead of saying the "disabled person", say the "person with a disability". Rather than saying "the retarded man", say the "person with mental retardation". Instead of saying "he is "crippled", "lame" or "deformed", say he is "physically disabled." Avoid group designations such as "the blind" or the "the deaf" because these terms do not reflect the individuality of the people with disabilities. For example, instead of saying "the blind" or "blind people" say "person who is blind" or "the people who are blind".

Refrain from patronizing people with disabilities. People with disabilities do not want to be viewed as heroic or particularly brave for living independently, working or accomplishing day-to-day tasks.

Be careful about what assumptions you make about people with disabilities. Do not assume that people with disabilities are unable to do things. People with quadriplegia can drive cars. People who are blind can use your work-out facility. Focus on the person's ability, not their disability. Don't make assumptions about what a person can or cannot do. Let them tell you and don't be afraid to ask. Do not assume that an individual's disability negatively affects their other senses. You don't have speak slowly or loudly to a person who is blind.

Be aware of "hidden" disabilities. For purposes of the Fair Housing laws, a "disability" is defined as an impairment that "substantially limits one or more of the major life activities." Learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, epilepsy, cancer, arthritis and heart conditions are not apparent by observing the person, but they are bona fide disabilities which may justify accommodation or modification by the Landlord.

The more often you are communicating and interacting with people with disabilities, the more comfortable you will become.

Charles Brown
Charles Brown is an attorney who invests in real estate in the Austin, Texas area. He is Board Certified in Residential and Commercial Real Estate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He can be reached at 512-476-8942.

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