Six Ways to Be Hospitable Toward People with Disabilities

Six Ways to Be Hospitable Toward People with Disabilities February 20, 2012

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.

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