Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Advising People with Disabilities

In a classroom, a black woman with physical disability smiles and listens to what you have to say
First time advising someone with a disability? There's no need to be awkward! Let us steer you away from some potential pitfalls.

1) Focusing too much on what language to use

Often the first response to an unfamiliar situation is not knowing what to say, or being unaware of how you might be offensive. The easiest step is to use the language the person with the disability uses. Everyone is different in how they refer to their disability and some people may avoid labels.

  • Neutralize and normalize your overall language. For example, it’s okay to say “see you later” to someone who is blind.
  • A person “uses” or "rides" a wheelchair rather than is “confined” or "bound" to one.
  • Someone doesn’t necessarily “suffer” from a disability; it's more neutral to say simply that they “have” that disability.
  • Nor is what they do or need “special” – even if it is a less common way to the majority of people, it isn’t for them.

Watch the Disability Sensitivity Training video in the Related Links for a humorous take on etiquette. While learning about disability culture is helpful, firsthand experience is the best teacher. It’s okay to make mistakes!

Take-away: Focus on equal opportunity and equal access – what you do rather than what you say matters most.

2) Limiting choices because of a disability

Have you ever made broad assumptions that a certain country is inaccessible and that it is better to go to another location instead? Did you know that a person with a disability could also apply to the same fellowships to the U.S. as everyone else, and a diversity of applicants is welcomed?

By focusing too much on their disability, you miss other factors influencing their eligibility or choices. It can even be discriminatory. People with disabilities want opportunities to grow and learn -- whether or not they succeed in the challenge, they have the same right as others to try. They need encouragement rather than over protection.

Take-away: People with disabilities continually prove that they can participate equally alongside their non-disabled peers.

3) Trying to figure it out alone

You are not alone nor do you need to reinvent the wheel -- talk to us at Mobility International USA and connect with colleagues with experience. Also remember that every community has disability-led organizations or assistance providers to collaborate with on brainstorming solutions and researching available resources.

Avoid the tendency to have “what if” planning discussions without the individual with the disability present. This can lead to misguided assumptions and set you on a path that may be less effective.

Take-away: Show respect by being direct and asking the person with the disability how, together, you can make it work.

4) Failing to follow-up during the experience

No matter how much you plan for accessibility and inclusion abroad, there will always be a need for adjustments and contingencies along the way, such as discovering new barriers in the community or having equipment failures.

Cultural and interpersonal dynamics are a factor for everyone, and for someone with a disability it may result in compounded issues. This may lead to changes to where a participant is living or a need to seek out new resources in the community.

Take-away: Create a communication schedule to revisit accommodations that are in place and identify any new issues and solutions.

5) Missing the opportunity of lessons learned

What insights do alumni with disabilities have for you on how accessibility could be improved? Invite them to share not only with you but with future participants by telling their story.

While each individual is different, there are universal lessons that can be useful to pay attention to:

  • Was health insurance an issue?
  • What about funding?
  • Were your partners or staff abroad ready or did you need to do a lot of negotiation?
  • Could you have done more to figure out community resources in advance or plan for more housing choices?

Take-away: Address these universal lessons to remove future barriers, build in flexibility, and improve your process for all participants.