Universal design for social interactions

Interacting with my client, Kurt, has given me a new understanding of the psychological challenges faced by people with disabilities, which can sometimes be more difficult to cope with than physical challenges. Kurt was once the head chef of a restaurant in Chicago. After working there for many years, he began to lose his eyesight and eventually had to quit his job. It was shocking to hear how he transitioned from being a well-known and respected chef to a “non-entity” who no longer felt relevant in society. It surprised me to discover that his friends and acquaintances began to treat him differently after he lost his sight.

Our client Kurt with his guide dog Zoar

Our client Kurt with his guide dog Zoar

I experienced this difference in social interactions myself during the wheelchair lab. I noticed that more strangers would smile at me, ask how I was doing, and open doors for me. While these strangers were clearly well-intentioned, it felt degrading that others assumed I required help or special attention. Their words and actions emphasized the fact that I was different from them, constructing a clear rift between abled and disabled people. Assuming that a person with a disability needs assistance robs them of their independence and leaves them feeling helpless. To avoid these interactions, I felt pressured to constantly be occupied and moving; if I ever stopped briefly to catch my breath, people assumed I was lost or needed help.

Listening to Kurt’s challenges and experiencing this difference in social interactions myself made me realize the importance of our language, tone, and actions. Rather than trying to be helpful by offering assistance to a person with a disability, it goes a long way to first ask if they would like help. Preserving people’s independence and decision-making power is critical to making everyone feel like an equal being, regardless of their abilities.

One Response to “Universal design for social interactions”

  1. Jeff Dusek says:

    My question is, how would you change your interactions with people with disabilities now that you have experienced the feelings first hand and have spoken extensively with Kurt? It’s a really fine line that I know I struggle with sometimes. On the one hand you want to be as helpful as possible, but on the other you don’t want to be demeaning- it can be tough.

Leave a Reply