Using the correct terminologies and handling situations appropriately with the disabled

By Yasmeen Banu

In honour of spreading awareness for people with disabilities, TOC spoke to Mr. Alvan Yap from the Disabled People’s Association to give us tips and pointers on how to handle situations with the disabled.

Below are some questions we have all wondered about, to which Mr. Yap has helped enlighten us.

1)    How does one go about talking to someone who is a wheelchair user? What would make them uncomfortable, or at ease?

First of all, and most importantly, we have to keep in mind that people with disabilities, including wheelchair users, are ‘normal’ people. They are neither a separate species nor aliens. Their disability is a natural part of them, as with one’s race, hair colour, gender, sexual orientation, etc. (Ideally, they should not be ashamed or see their disability as a deficit or abnormality, though some are due to cultural, social or familial mindsets.)

So any awkwardness tend to come from non-disabled people who may have misconceptions about the disability – resulting in them talking to the companion/caregiver of the disabled person instead of directly to the disabled person himself, or assuming that the disabled person is inevitably less intelligent or articulate or always requires help. This is not true.

For wheelchair users, is there any particular difficulty or awkwardness in talking to them? There is no need to ask about their disability, unless it is in context and relevant. Just as we do not ask a person at the first meeting about private or sensitive issues such as his/her sexual preferences or family squabbles, we should not be asking about a disabled person’s medical issues or disability. Having a disability doesn’t give others a free rein to probe into it, or become part of the public domain.

Also, note that using the term “wheelchair bound” is not appropriate as it implies that the person is physically bounded to the wheelchair, which isn’t true. People use their wheelchairs to help them access places and be mobile, and they get out of their wheelchairs when going to bed, the toilet, swimming, etc.

The proper term to use is “wheelchair user”.


2)    What would be the ideal term to call people who are not able-bodied? Is calling them “disabled” degrading?

Most people with disabilities are fine with the terms “disabled” and “person with disability” to describe them. This is also DPA’s stance – “disabled” is perfectly (okay).

Some people with disabilities may prefer terms like “special needs”, “differently abled” and so on, and some may even call themselves “handicapped” which is now deemed a taboo word – but we respect their preferences.


3)    If one has offended someone disabled unintentionally, what does one go about doing or saying to redeem themselves?

It depends on the nature of the offensive action/behaviour or language. I think most persons with disabilities can tell whether it was done out of malice or an innocent error, and won’t take it to heart if it’s the latter.


4)    What is the one thing everyone should keep in mind when handling the disabled?

My tip is: Don’t stress too much about interacting with them. They are people, like you and me. Treat them as you would anyone else – i.e., in a normal way. (They are not circus freaks!)

Also would like to point out that people with disabilities have ways of coping and managing their conditions. Many of them have lived with their disabilities since birth or from a young age, so they have adapted to mainstream society.

For example, I am hard of hearing, so if I’m talking to you for the first time, I will tell you about it and ask you to repeat yourself if I can’t catch what you say, and may even ask to talk in a more quiet place if there’s too much background noise. Or I may ask you to write if I can’t catch you because of your accent or my hearing aid batteries run out. There are always ways.


Watch these video by Scope and Grey UK about handling awkward situations:

For further information on being a volunteer at The Disabled People’s Association (DPA), or to find out more about DPA, visit their website.

Alternatively, you can visit their Facebook page, or their blog.