Six Ways to Be Hospitable Toward People with Disabilities

Update: This post refers to people with physical disabilities. I would love to hear hospitality ideas from people who live with intellectual disabilities, hearing and vision impairment, mental illness, and other conditions. If you are a blogger with an expertise in those areas, consider writing a “six ways to be hospitable” post of your own and let me know. I will publicize and link to it!

We’re all familiar with the ways that public spaces are made accessible to people with disabilities—designated parking spaces, ramps and elevators, automatic doors. Of course, mechanical error, stupidity, and general ridiculousness mean that such accommodations are not always as accommodating as they should be. Elevators break, for example, or are hidden in some dark back hallway. And don’t get me started on handicapped parking. (I think I’ll write a separate post on that some time because if I get going on that subject now, I will quickly lose my focus and my marbles. In fact, I’ll write that post for tomorrow.)

So, public accommodations, when they are well-done and well-maintained by well-intentioned people, make life for people with disabilities a little easier.

But we don’t spend all, or even most, of our time in public buildings. In private settings, I frequently bump up against barriers that make it difficult for me, as a person with a disability, to feel welcomed. Not because anyone does or says anything offensive or rude. Simply because so many places and situations are governed by the needs and assumptions of perfectly able-bodied folk.

Here are six ways that you can make your home and your attitude more welcoming to people with disabilities—both people with a diagnosed disabling condition, like me, as well as anyone from middle age on up with creaky knees and bad backs. (I’m going to assume that people who use wheelchairs might have a somewhat different list; I’d love to hear from some wheelers in the comments.)

1.         Install handrails on all staircases.

It can be impossible (really impossible…I’m not exaggerating for dramatic effect) for someone with bad knees and/or weak quads to walk up or down steps without a handrail. And dangerous too. Install sturdy handrails on all the stairs in your home, inside and outside, including those two steps up to your front door and the basement stairs. And for goodness’ sake, even if you adore sleek modernist design, please don’t ever install one of those “floating” staircases that don’t have any handrails whatsoever. Dumbest design idea ever. No design statement is worth someone breaking a hip on your staircase. Trust me. Plus, we’ll end up gripping the wall instead, which will leave handprints on your pristine white walls.

2.         Clear snow and ice early and often.

When I lived in Virginia and then D.C., winter weather posed a much greater danger to me than it does here in New England. Here, most people are outside with their shovels or snow blowers even as the last flakes are falling. In warmer climes, people are more likely to let the snow sit where it falls until it melts. Problem is, of course, that between the falling and the melting, snow gets trod on and packed down and transformed from lovely fluff to treacherous ice.

Even here in New England, there are people who don’t clear their front walks, driveways, and sidewalks. I have on occasion driven up to someone’s house, noted that getting from my car to their front door will require me to risk my life (or at least, my fragile skeleton), and driven away without even getting out of the car. For someone whose walking gait and balance are compromised even on ideal terrain, an icy sidewalk is a thing of terror.

Get out there and shovel or snow blow as soon as you can. Within a day, the sun’s radiant heat will clear the last thin layer of white stuff away, and you’ll have a bone-dry driveway and front walk. And I won’t have to avoid your home until April.

3.         Don’t ask me to take my shoes off.

People who expect others to take their shoes off in their homes often have perfectly reasonable motivations, involving their cultural background or a desire for clean carpets. But asking me to take my shoes off is like asking someone who uses a wheelchair to leave the chair at the door. My shoes provide support and traction that I need to navigate safely through your home. I’m happy to explain this to people, and they are generally happy to accommodate me.

But what really bugs me is that, so often, the “Leave your shoes at the door” request is presented as a demand, often with a not-so-slight whiff of superiority. I get the sense that I’m being asked to leave behind not only my shoes, but also my grimy little self that doesn’t seem to understand the value of clean carpets or cultural sensitivity. How about: “We take off our shoes at the door and you are welcome to do the same if you’d like. But it’s up to you.”

Because it actually is up to me whether to remove an article of my own clothing.

4.         Look down.

I’m always amazed by how many people seem to believe that everything worthy of their attention is at their eye level. I’ll be at a crowded stand-up party in someone’s home or elsewhere, and someone next to me will whirl around, eyes firmly fixed on the bar where they are headed for a refill, and plow into me, even though I’m right there! Right next to them! And I am not invisible! People also tend to careen around corners without looking anywhere but straight ahead.

Not all people with disabilities are as short as I am, of course. But many of us are. Older folk tend to shrink a bit with age. And given that our balance may already be a bit off, we’d really rather not have people running into us willy-nilly.

People look so surprised to find an actual person, a grown-up person, occupying the space from their torso on down. They apologize. Don’t apologize! Just look where you are going! Sheesh.

5.         Pay attention to what is on your floors (and in your tub).

Throw rugs with pesky corners that won’t lie flat. Slick marble or ceramic tiles in the bathroom or the kitchen (because smooth tiles that are slippery even when dry make so much sense for rooms in which there is lots of water). I see these things and my thigh muscles literally tense up, preparing to keep me upright should I trip or slip. Okay, maybe it’s a teensy bit unreasonable for me to ask that you renovate your kitchens and baths for my sake. But at least make sure that slick surfaces are dry. If it’s rainy or snowy, provide a rug at the door and encourage everyone to wipe their wet feet before walking all over the shiny floors. (Just don’t demand that they take off their shoes…)

And if you’re having a house guest who has even a little bit of trouble with mobility, please go to Target and buy a rubber tub mat. It’s very hard to get oneself clean when one is gripping the shower walls to prevent a completely mortifying situation in which one will have to call for help after slipping on wet porcelain and injuring oneself, all while stark naked.

6.         Don’t do these things for me. Do them for yourself.

Chances are you have someone in your life, such as an elderly relative, with impaired mobility who would benefit from this advice. But don’t make these changes to your home and your attitude only for the people in your life who are not perfectly able-bodied. Make these changes for yourself and the family members who share your home. Because pretty much all able-bodied people are, in the words of theologian Hans Reinders, only “temporarily able-bodied.” You or someone in your family may have an accident or injury some day that leads to temporary or permanent disability. If you’re very lucky, you’ll simply get old, and as you do, the cartilage cushioning your joints and spine will wear away, your muscles will weaken a bit, and your balance will become unreliable.

The architectural concept of “universal design” is not merely about making spaces accessible to people with disabilities. It’s about creating spaces where people of all abilities, and of changing abilities, are welcomed and accommodated. What I’m proposing here is a sort of “universal design” that requires little or no actual renovation. Most of the world is governed by the needs of people for whom an icy sidewalk is just an icy sidewalk and steps are just steps. Spend a little time and effort to adjust your spaces and your attitude, and you’ll give people like me a tremendous gift—the gift of being welcomed just as we are, the gift of feeling safe, the gift of not having to articulate our needs all the time because those needs have already been met (quietly, routinely, effectively). And you’ll be a bit more prepared if (when) the day comes when you see an icy sidewalks and staircases as barriers keeping you from the people and places you love.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Kara Ayers

    Some really great ideas here….I always find it interesting how very different and diverse disability perspectives can be. I wouldn’t have thought of several of these but I’ve always had an issue with the “take your shoes off” demands as someone who can’t “take her wheels off” it leaves me wondering if their cringing at the dirt I’m introducing to their home. On a side note, my husband I both “wear” our wheels (and our shoes for that matter) and we’re able to keep our floors clean enough that our able bodied daughter walks about with no dirtier socks than other kids I’ve seen.
    OK….so back on topic. I’d add to this list the foresight to tell me about the accessibility of your home when the opportunity to visit arises. Let me know if you have a bathroom I can use and I’m usually up for some creativity. If there’s a bathroom that I might not be able to close the door while using but it’s in a private hall or you’re willing to block the exits while I use it, let me know. This is so much more comfortable than me always leading the asking/suggesting dance. If you are serving a meal for a person with a disability, buffet is generally not the best option. If it’s customary in your house for everyone to get their own plates and the dishes are too high, offer to make the plate of the guest with their input. Attitude goes so much further in making me feel welcome than even the structure of the home. I’ve had a fantastic time visiting friends that live in extremely inaccessible homes while at the same time felt much more unwelcome in homes that I happen to be able to roll right in…..Embrace an attitude of openness and welcomeness and you’re off to the right start.

  • http://www.studiopacifica.com Karen

    My daughter and fellow wheeler and I came up with our short list this AM in response to your heartfelt and informative post, Ellen. Here goes:

    1. Invite us to the party, even if your home isn’t fully accessible. We’d rather be invited and work out the details than not be invited. We are open to assistance in entering homes with steps. We have had to negotiate places with steps/stairs all our lives and usually have a back-up plan or good idea. It’s ok to say you are nervous about how to talk about the subject, we don’t expect perfection – we appreciate inclusion and a can-do attitude!

    2. Make a path through the furniture. We enjoy being able to move around our friends’ homes, to move from kitchen to dining or living to playroom. If possible, relocate some furniture to let us move around to the places where you and your friends will be.

    3. Make a place where we can sit in the seating group. While we come with our own chairs, we often “fill up” a seating arrangement as just “one too many” chairs. Consider removing a small side chair to give us room to join in the conversation group.

    4. If you want guests to serve themselves, place the buffet items at table height, rather than counter or bar height. We struggle to see into containers above table height, but enjoy making our own food choices. Offer assistance in carrying our plates/utensils/glasses to a table. We may say “no thank you” but appreciate the offer. Sometimes, with thick carpets or rugs, it is just too hard to carry your plate or hot cup to the table safely.

    5. Remove portable items (baskets of towels, etc.) that might block us from entering your main floor bath or powder room. We just need to get in – and ideally, close the door behind us. Putting out hand sanitizer on the counter would be a good substitute for being able to reach to wash hands.

    6. Remove throw rugs from your bathroom floor. I can’t say how often those things roll up under my wheels and I’m temporarily trapped in the bathroom.

    As Kara said, it is the attitude and flexibility of the host that goes a long way to making a visit “welcoming”.

  • http://eatwithjoy.org Rachel Stone

    Yay for making hospitality be for EVERYONE! To my mind, nothing (okay, almost nothing) should get in the way of welcoming everybody, in their Actual Bodies! I especially like the point that universal design is good for everyone as we grow old.

  • http://www.painandspirituality.blogspot.com Carol D. Marsh

    This is such a helpful post, Ellen. I have learned a lot, and I thought I knew about welcoming persons who are physically different than me. The added comments are great, too.

  • Amy Julia Becker

    Thanks for this, Ellen. It’s really helpful and makes me wonder whether there is any way to think about it for people with intellectual disabilities . . .

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      I wonder the same thing Amy Julia. Think you might write a companion piece on that question some time? I think that would be really great.

  • http://DisabledDining.com Ryan

    Great ideas! This is why i created disableddining.com to rank and review popular restaurants off of there accessibility. Also added “The Wheels of Shame” a blog dedicated to violators in handicap parking. Disgusting how many violators there are need more towing and tickets!

  • mklmsw

    Thank you for this excellent article. The comments too have been excellent. It would be wonderful if a large news agency would pick this up and run the whole thing including comments! The “baby boomers” are aging and there are more and more of us who will be experiencing mobility issues. The youngest of this demographic are now 55.


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