I was waiting for the Disney film Maleficent to start when I came across the #EndTheAwkward advert for the disability services charity Scope. ‘What a brilliant idea,’ I thought, from an etiquette point of view.
The videos show potentially awkward situations between a person with a physical disability and another person who doesn’t know how to act. There’s a pause, where Alex Brooker, the narrator explains the best course of action.
Below is the advert I saw in the cinema. In it is a woman about to have a meeting with a man whose right hand was amputated. She hesitates for a moment, then decides to offer her left hand instead of giving him an “awkward wave”. Do watch the short video before reading on.
It is my favourite of the Scope videos, for personal reasons. When I was very young, my grandfather suffered several cerebral aneurysms that left him without memory or language and the right side of his body paralysed. After the unending months of therapy, Papi, as he was to me, was able to walk unassisted, his right leg dragging. Eventually he regained his ability to talk. He taught himself to do everything with his left hand, including write.
When it was time to introduce a gentleman suitor to the family, I remember saying, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t tell my brothers we went on holiday together. Also, remember to offer your left hand to Papi, alright?‘ My grandfather’s left-handed handshakes were so normal to me, it was almost secondary to the illicit couple’s holiday I was trying to keep secret.
My boyfriend did well, managed a ‘lovely to meet you,’ with their handshake. Papi had a wicked sense of humour, and was never one to sugarcoat his words. He asked my guest two questions, the first was ‘Do you smoke?’ And, well, the memory of the second question still conjures feelings of horrified disbelief for me. I’m glad I gave my gentleman friend prior warning. Soon he forgot about Papi’s encumbered walk and enfeebled right hand, instead he was simply scared of my protective grandfather and older brothers.
Living with a grandfather with impaired speech has taught me to be a better communicator. To this day, I am more sensitive than most, always the first to anticipate people’s needs. When I’m abroad, I find I have no trouble deciphering people’s gestures as they speak an intelligible foreign language.
I am not an authority on disability matters. I am an etiquette enthusiast speaking from experience. With that in mind, I suppose my own advice on how to #EndTheAwkward is, if you do tell friends how to act beforehand, they will be more at ease. This way, when a similar situation arises without warning, they will know what to do.
People will learn from their encounters and experiences, and they will act accordingly. I’m still learning. Not long ago, I told a lady in a wheelchair to ‘Have a seat; I’ll be with you shortly.’ I heard it as soon as I said it. We looked at each other, then we giggled together, hers a ‘heard this all before’ laugh; mine was more ‘oh I hope the ground opens up and swallows me whole’ chuckle.
I remember my grandfather saying that all he wants, is to be treated as if he can run a marathon. Talk and interact with people with disability just like you would anyone else. A person’s inability to walk, move their hands or their limited vision does not affected how they think or feel. Unless they ask for help, avoid affectionate over familiarity that may come across as condescending.
As Naoki Higashida so poetically writes in The Reason I Jump, ‘True compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self-respect.’
This post is not authorised by the charity Scope. I am however, promoting their #EndTheAwkward videos, as ever, with the aim to help everyone be at ease in every social situation. Learn more about Scope and their campaign on their website.