(125) In Search of #iTreasure: Talking to Veterans with Disabilities

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Golly, Miss Molly

A Blog about a Service Dog and her Veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the Veteran and the Family Caregiver)


Never Pet a Service Animal or Touch a Wheelchair 

You would think after being married to a disabled Veteran for over 21 years that I would know etiquette for approaching and talking with Veterans with disabilities. After digging for treasure on the internet this week, I found hundreds of articles, blogs, and tips on how to talk to people with disabilities. Even though I worked with folks with a variety of disabilities for 30 years, I learned several things on my treasure hunt I did not know that I had been doing wrong. For example, did you know that a service animal is an extension of the owner just as a wheelchair is considered an extension of its user? That means, you never pet the service animal or touch the wheelchair unless invited to do so.

When accompanied by Molly, William prefers people not to pet her. I have overruled his preference because people ask nicely and Molly helps calm or cheer them. William often gives in and allows the petting at my urging. After reading that Molly is an extension of him, I will never suggest petting be allowed. Sorry, hubby! (I owe him a batch of diabetic cookies for my error.)

The Golden Rule

Many of the articles I read refer to the Golden Rule.

Always treat others as you want to be treated.

Following the Golden Rule might take your imagination. Put yourself in the other persons’ shoes and consider how you would want to be treated if you bore the same disability. The Illinois Department of Human Services suggested, “Think of the person first, not their disability. Don’t shy away from people with disabilities—relax and be yourself!”

I think we need a Silver Rule: 

Focus on the person—not the disability.

Uncomfortable with People with Disabilities 

Nearly every article I read suggested that people without disabilities are uncomfortable talking to or approaching those with disabilities. Often those without disabilities feel sorry for people with disabilities, “and assume that they are bitter” about their condition. Many fear they will say the wrong thing and offend the individual with disabilities.

In an article entitled, “Interacting with People with Disabilities,” the writer referenced dialogue on a Larry King Live episode that included interviews with people with disabilities. Some interviewees suggested they are enriched from their disabilities, “and even if given the chance to erase their disability would choose not to.”

Getting Past Uncomfortable 

Gathering information from many sources, I will start with a list of things to do or consider when talking with someone with disabilities. Due to the amount of information available, just a few of the tips are shared in this blog. More will be shared in future blogs. If you have questions or would like to share your own tips, please send them Miss Molly’s way and we will include them in future blogs.

Tips for Addressing People with Disabilities 

  • Always ask first if the person wants help and wait for their answer before helping. Often times, the individual wants to be independent and do the task without help. I always put the Golden Rule before this one, as I consider it rude not to hold a door for someone coming in after me and I certainly don’t want a door closing in my face.
  • Look the person directly in the eyes to talk with them, placing yourself at their eye level if the person uses a wheelchair. Even a blind person will know if you are looking directly at them. I learned this when working with my visually-impaired Disability Coordinator in one city. It felt strange at first but worked well after I left my discomfort behind. If an interpreter is used, speak to the person you are addressing—not the interpreter.
  • Think before you speak, avoiding use of labels about the person’s disability. Avoid referring to the person with a pet name, such as “honey” or “dear.” If you are with others, be sure to refer to the person with disabilities in the same manner as others. For example, if you address others using their title and last name, give the same courtesy to everyone.
  • Never lean on or touch a person’s mobility aid such as a wheelchair, cane, walker, or service animal. Be considerate of the space needed for their mobility.

And Don’t Call Him a Service Dog 

William and I heard yelling outside of the doctor’s office at the VA clinic one day. A Veteran walking in the corridor yelled, “And don’t call him a service dog. He’s a service animal. You people need to get it right.”

I did not think referring to a canine with a service vest as a service dog was offensive. The Veteran was correct, however. The DOJ (Department of Justice) and others recommend referring to our service dogs as service animals.

Molly's big, brown eyesAs for Miss Molly, she does not offend easily unless you talk about her weight or overly large backside. Although she is officially under her ideal weight at 117 pounds, as approved by her veterinarian, she holds on to the stigma of being chubby. It’s nothing to shake a stick at so mind your manners, please, if you see her around. You can’t miss her. She’s the one with the big . . .—the big brown eyes.

Post your Comments: 

What suggestions do have to help others be sensitive to your disability when talking with you? Please reply below. 

Photo credits: pculbrethgraft

Sources cited:

  • Dimas, James. Illinois Department of Human Services. “People First: A Guide to Interacting with People with Disabilities – DHS 4151,” as retrieved on September 12, 2015 at www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=32276
  • Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design. “The Basics: Interacting with People with Disabilities,” as retrieved on September 12, 2015 at http://uiaccess.com/accessucd/interact.html

About the blogger 

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her disabled Vietnam Veteran husband, William, and his service dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her granddaughter.