Dr. Jody Hershey, director of the West Piedmont Health District, has taken disability sensitivity/awareness training that focuses on common respect, courtesy, and eliminating the awkwardness that many people may experience interacting with a person who has a disability.

He recommends such training to anyone, and said he said he believes such training is critical for professional and personal interaction.

Following are some observations and tips he offered.

People with disabilities are the largest and fastest growing minority in the U.S.

"Most people want to show respect and sensitivity to people with disabilities, but they simply don’t know how, and with good reason: amid dozens of disabilities and millions who have them, there is so much to know that it overwhelms most people," Hershey said.

He also said: "There is a form of prejudice in our society that surrounds disability — a discomfort or subtle fear of that which is different and unfamiliar. It manifests as pity, avoidance, or mockery. When many of us see someone with a profound disability, a fleeting thought occurs—’What if it were me?’ Naturally, many people tend to avoid those who make them feel uncomfortable or guilty. These experiences are very common and ones that many of us have worked through."

There’s a growing need in society for people to be educated about people living with disabilities.

"At some point in all of our lives, we will be confronted with a situation where we will have to serve the needs of someone who has a disability. Sadly, stereotypes and prejudice impact the way in which we interact with and serve others who have disabilities. Discrimination and negative attitudes towards people with disabilities come from a general lack of information and misunderstanding about who these people are and the best practices for serving their unique needs as individuals," Hershey said.

He added his motto has always been to put people first rather than focus on their disability – and remember that everyone has some sort of handicap, in some people more than others.

Consider these things when interacting with people with disabilities: "Ask before you help. People desire to be independent and treated with respect. Be sensitive about physical contact. People depend on their arms for balance—consider equipment part of their personal space. Think before you speak. Speak directly to the person. Don’t make assumptions. People are the best judge of what they can or cannot do," Hershey said.

Remember that all people are different and need to be recognized for what they are capable of doing, not what they may require aid to accomplish. Learn, understand and respect all people, whether they are the same or different.

"Unfortunately, and inaccurately, people with disabilities are often viewed as victims, or objects of pity; burdens, either on society or on their families and careers; a threat to the comfort and safety of others, unable, or assumed to be unable, to do things; having multiple disabilities (such as assuming that a person who uses a wheelchair also has an intellectual disability); childlike; and/or ‘special.’ Such misconceptions are based on insufficient or inaccurate information about people with disabilities and can perpetuate inappropriate interactions," Hershey said.

Remember that people with disabilities are people first, who happen to have a disability; that you too may face a disability someday; and here’s a person who could help you live with it.

Hershey said: "I always keep in mind the diversity of disability: Disability affects every race, culture, sexual orientation, income and gender. There is no ‘The Disabled’ – the type of disability is as diverse as our population. It is important to realize there is no ‘one size fits all.’ Two people with the same disability may have significantly different needs that can be based on their: attitudes, abilities, personalities, histories and resources. Disability is just one part of the diversity of being human."

When talking with a person with a disability, identify the person first, rather than the disability. For example, say "person with a disability" or "a person who is deaf" instead of "disabled person" or "deaf person." Or say "cognitive or developmental disability," not "slow" "or "retarded; "has a mental illness," not "crazy or insane"; "uses a wheelchair," not "wheelchair bound"; "a person with limited skills," not "low functioning."

Also, when talking with a person with a disability, be sensitive. "The terms ‘afflicted with,’ ‘suffering from,’ ‘cripple,’ and ‘victim’ are all considered unacceptable. They emotionalize and sensationalize disability to induce pity. The term ‘handicapped’ is based on the image of a person with a disability on the street with a cap on their hand, begging for money. Except when citing laws, regulations or environmental conditions such as stairs, (e.g., the stairs are a handicap to her), always use the term ‘disability’ instead," Hershey said.

He added: "Remember to focus on abilities, not disabilities; ask first—offer assistance only if warranted and wanted; and use common sense—treat someone with a disability the way that person wants to be treated."

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