It can still be awkward. That’s OK

By Graeme Whippy | 27th November 2017

There can be moments in anyone’s day that just feel a bit awkward. You stand back for someone to go through a door, they do the same, then you both try and go through at the same time. Oops. Laughing, you both stand back again.

End the awkward

In dealing with disabled people it can sometimes be awkward too. Simple social norms such as shaking hands or expecting eye contact may or may not be appropriate depending on the individual. Just like travelling in different cultures, meeting and working with people with disabilities involves more variety than the limited standard norms.  The good news is, like travelling, the more experience you have and the more open and relaxed you are to adapting to individual differences, the easier it gets.

However, even experienced inclusion professionals can still have moments that feel a bit clunky. As proof, here are some moments I have had and some tips to help make it feel easier for all parties.

Scope’s #EndTheAwkward campaign uses cringingly-awful (but very funny) scenarios to illustrate the awkwardness that many non-disabled people have. Thanks to the lovely folk at Scope, the featured image above is one from their campaign. Awkwardness can be felt in what people say or what they do when first meeting a disabled person.

Those of us who work on a day-to-day basis with disabled people laughed along when we saw the campaign, comforted by the knowledge that we’d never find ourselves in the same kind of situation. No, of course not. We wouldn’t… would we?

Why do we still find it hard?

My first contact with disabled people was back in the early 80s when I helped teach blind physiotherapists how to use a BBC Micro computer. This early exposure to disability was followed 20 years later by a career move into IT Accessibility. Then in 2010 I moved to general business disability consultancy.

As result I’ve had pretty much daily contact with people with a wide range of impairments and conditions for many years. So I should be supremely confident when it comes to interacting with disabled people, right?

Well, no. It’s been a journey for me just like it is anyone else and I’ve come to the conclusion that there will always be situations where awkwardness rears its unwelcome head.

There was situation recently that got me thinking about this. At a company where I provide consultancy on workplace inclusion for disabled people one of the departments had a young man with tetraplegia coming in to do work experience. The manager organising the placement asked me if I’d like to pop over and say hello and make sure everything was in place to support him.

Just before going to meet him my years of experience and confidence deserted me and I was wracked with a sudden and out-of-nowhere doubt – he’s a stranger, he can’t move his arms at all, what do I do? Google was little help as there were articles that advocated making physical contact to prevent awkwardness and isolation as well as those that advocated just a nod and a smile.

In the end it felt awkward, I made a move towards his chair that must have suggested that a hand-shake was coming his way, resulting in him saying he was sorry but couldn’t shake hands and me just touching him on the hand. Not my finest moment. Awkward.

We are all different

So why did I have a problem in this case after years of experience and going in with consideration and best intent? I think there are two reasons.

The first is personal to me – I’m socially awkward at the best of times, probably due to being mildly autistic but enough to make social interaction something that I fret about in advance and feel awkward in practice – don’t get me started about double cheek kissing! Hence at that moment a sudden bout of self-doubt and awkwardness ensued. If I’d just gone with my instincts and just smiled and said hello I’d probably have been all right.

But when I talk to others about such bouts of awkwardness, it seems I’m not alone. We all have them every now and again. It’s simply down to the fact that, at risk of stating the bloomin’ obvious, every disabled person we meet is different and will have different preferences when it comes to meeting, and saying goodbye.

Consequently social norms in these circumstances no longer apply and it’s probably going to feel uncomfortable, but that’s to be expected and it’s ok, it’s part of being human.

Some ideas to make it easier

To help smooth things, here are my three top tips.

  • Be in the moment and aware of the other person’s body language (or lack of it!).
  • Adjust your behaviour to suit the situation.
  • Let the person help you. Ask them what they prefer.

And remember, intent shows through. If you show willing, are respectful, open and genuine, then, if what you do is still clunky, be assured that most people understand and appreciate the right intent. Then next time you will relax and better adapt to individuals’ differing styles and preferences.