Interacting with Assistive Technology Users

As someone who uses Assistive Technology (AT) to make it through her day, I’m telling you, you non-AT users can get pretty… weird. Something about interacting with an assistive technology (AT) user like me causes some normally very composed and astute people to lose a bit of their cool. I get it. I’m sure when I roll up in my wheelchair not in full control of my own body and chatting with my mom using my word board, I can catch the average bear off guard. (The wheelchair and word board are both ATs, by the way.) I completely understand when kids stare at me and, in their innocence, ask me why I’m in the chair.  Children have not yet experienced the full diversity of the world.  However, when an adult starts talking to me too loudly and enunciating slowly, like I’m hard of hearing, or addressing things to my mother like I’m not there, I can’t spell out weirdo on my word board quick enough.  I love the look on their face when my friend or mother tells them I have a B.A. in Communication and maybe they should talk to me directly and stop yelling so I don’t assume they’re crazy and roll away. It’s even better when whoever is with me adds that I’m a successful accessibility analyst.  The resulting revelation usually does make them talk more intelligently to me. I usually refrain from actually calling them a weirdo but sometime I can’t help taking a little jab and asking them why they think the wheelchair affects my hearing.

I’m having a little fun here. However, the truth is most people are awkward with people who use AT – not because they are mean but because they do not know how to interact.  Although they were taught good table etiquette and probably don’t talk with their mouths full, no one taught them good PWD (persons with disabilities) etiquette while they were growing up.  They also may have not had any association with PWDs throughout their lives.  I guess we seemed like the Untouchables.  Therefore, here is a little PWD etiquette 101 for you from the communication major:


You are very kind if you want to help a person in a wheelchair open a door or an individual with a white cane cross the street.  However, if you come up from behind a blind person, grab his arm, and say “Let me help you” you’re going to end up with a white cane upside the head. People with good sight can be scared out of their shorts if you come up to them too quickly. Let’s give the guys who can’t see a half a chance and ask them if it’s okay before you start messing with them.  And, let me tell you, as someone cruising the world in a wheelchair, if you get in front of me to try to open the door without asking first, I’m getting your toes with one of those big ol’ wheels.  While we appreciate your desire to help, you should always ask AT users first if they need help.  Form the question politely: “May I help you with that?” If the individual refuses assistance do not take offense to it, most AT users are independent and proud of it. 


When I spell something on my word board, I like the person with whom I’m communicating to guess what I’m trying to say.  It saves us time and energy.  Plus, I’m a huge Wheel of Fortune fan and when people guess correctly, I feel like Pat Sajak and want to give them a prize. (One of these days I’m going to put dollar amounts on my wheelchair wheels and make my mom dress like Vanna White.) Other persons with speech impairments who use voice synthesizers, however, may not want to be interrupted while they are programming their speech input because it may confuse them or make them feel less independent. (Plus, they may not know anyone who can pull off the Vanna White thing as well as Mom)  So, wait for the user to request your help in completing communicated messages.

This same principle of etiquette applies to screen reader users.  If the AT is in the middle of reading content for the user, do not read it aloud also unless they request it.  Talking at all while a screen reader is functioning prevents the user from hearing the spoken content clearly.  It is like listening to Andrea Boccelli singing and then having Pee-Wee Herman join in. And, guess what – you’re Pee-Wee Herman!


As I mentioned, some people assume I have a cognitive or hearing impairment since I am in a wheelchair and cannot talk. They may talk loudly or slowly to me or speak only to the person who is with me.  Even someone who is cognitive or hearing impaired may not appreciate that communicative tone.  They may look at the person who is talking loudly and think, I feel sorry for this guy.  Unless asked, talk in a normal rate and tone.  Additionally, when a person without a disability is with a PWD, they should use direct eye contact to each other while conversing.  A romance does not bud every time people look into each other’s eyes but better communication does.  Eye contact can reveal more than words sometimes.


If you are curious about how a PWD uses an AT device, do not stare at them.  That may make them feel uncomfortable or stalked.   Once, a guy at the other end of the room stared at me while I was using my word board with a friend. He was looking at me. I was looking at him. I thought for sure he would come running into my arms in slow motion with Chariots of Fire playing in the background. But, for once, that didn’t happen. Instead of staring, approach the individual and ask, “Please, may I ask how you use the talking device?”  Most of the time, the individual will be more than happy to share the information.  Your inquisitiveness may make them feel more important.


I remember I was at a fair once. A woman approached me and draped a necklace with a cross around my neck she said, “I’m so sorry.  I’ll pray for you”.  I felt like the Pope should have anointed me a saint.  Although she had the kindest intentions, she embarrassed me—and herself without knowing it.  I asked myself why she was sorry.  She didn’t cause my disability, and I did not think I looked that pathetic.

AT users don’t need pity.  The AT is the reason that PWDs live independent, productive lives.  By a similar principle, AT users also might be offended if they are considered inspirations or superheroes because they have overcome obstacles.  Being considered inspiring may put pressure and place higher expectations on them.  Besides, wearing superhero capes brings out the paparazzi. What most people want is to feel normal. This is no different for a PWD.


Have you noticed that through this post I’ve used “persons with disabilities”, “persons with speech impairments”, and “persons with cognitive or hearing impairment” instead of “disabled persons”, “mute persons”, and “deaf persons”?  That’s because I believe you should always put the person before the disability. If you refer to someone as a “disabled person”, for example, you place emphasis on “disabled”, inferring that the individual is incapable of doing something and that the most defining thing about them is the disability. I’d much rather be defined by the degree in communication I worked hard for and my successful career and not the technologies that helped me along the way. That would be like defining a marathon winner by their shoes. When you say “a person with a disability”, however, it implies that they just happen to have an impairment.  


PWDs deserve the same respect and consideration as everyone else. When in doubt look to the golden rule:  When interacting with someone who uses AT because they have a disability, treat them as you would like to be treated yourself.  If you do not like being treated like an alien or a martyr, then don’t make PWDs feel that way.  Interactions without prejudice or misconceptions will be much more gratifying for both of you.

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