Following my last post, you may be wondering, “so where can I start?” Start with changing your instincts in how you assess a situation. When you see someone crying, screaming, losing emotional control, are they hitting themselves? Are they repeating certain phrases over and over? Are they disoriented or confused about where they are or who they are speaking with? Are they using the same language repeatedly when asked questions, showing frustration in not being able to explain the situation? Are their sentences disjointed and shortened?
Of course, as people with disabilities are people first above anything else (and I’ll be diving deep into person-first language soon), they are just as unique and individualized as any other person on the planet. But, if you take the time to quickly assess the situation BEFORE responding, you might see common indicators of a disability. And your best bet if you cannot tell—ASK. You don’t have to outright ask if the person has a disability. Talk to the person in a calm voice. Ask them what’s going on, if they need any help, what they are feeling, what they need.
However, (and I cannot emphasize this enough) do not ask them more than 1 question at a time. It sounds simpler than it is. In everyday communication, we rarely ask one succinct question and wait for an answer. It’s conversational to ask, “How’s it going? What’s going on?” or “What’s your name? Can you tell me why you’re upset?” But to many people with disabilities, before they can answer the first question, throwing another question at them only diverts their attention in a different direction and can quite literally block their brain from processing the information they need to give to respond to any of your questions.
Ask these questions before approaching them. Ask if they need space, and if they do, have an area they can safely go while the situation is being resolved.
Above all else, don’t threaten. Don’t say “do this, or you can’t leave,” or “if you don’t do what I say, I’m taking you to jail.” Those statements may be the truth, but you are much more likely to de-escalate and solve the problem at hand quickly if you try to remove the tension from the situation. Some people with disabilities can be susceptible to extra anxiety and vulnerability. They may not be physically or mentally capable of doing what you are asking, and when they realize this, and cannot communicate that to you, it can escalate the circumstances until everything spirals out of control. Always listen, and not just to verbal cues but nonverbal ones (hand motions, facial expressions, guarding behavior, rocking, etc.). These are small but monumental changes to your approach that can really make a difference.
There are always emergencies that are to be handled differently—but make sure you are correctly identifying the situation as a real emergency. It may not be as urgent as you initially believed once you follow the approaches I’ve given above. Take the time to listen, and provide alternative methods for communication. If the person is not responding to you, ask if they want to write down or type what is going on. Provide an interpreter or translator whenever possible. Ask if there is someone you can bring to help explain what is happening. Your conventional methods for how you communicate or respond in a situation are not everyone’s and they may not even always be the best way to respond. Be open to differences and you’ll be more likely to correctly assess the situation.
For a detailed consultation on responding to situations involving a person with a specific type of disability, please feel to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for an individualized consultation.
Ashley Jacobson, MA, CRC