"The means is dialogue, the end is learning, the purpose is peace." ~ Founder Dr. Jane Vella

Posts tagged with "Disabilities"

Disability Etiquette!

A while ago I had the joy of reading a fascinating theological book called Copious Hosting: A Theology of Access for People with Disabilities. In that gentle and prophetic text, Catholic disability-advocate Jennie Weiss Block sets out to define disability and accessibility theologically, explore the history and the concerns of the American disability-rights movement, and offer an inclusive theological account of disability based solidly in friendship and compassion. I highly recommend it! For now, I want to share ten tips for “disability etiquette,” as stated by Block (pp. 142-148).

  1. Do not make decisions that affect people with disabilities without their participation.
  2. Use common sense. People with disabilities are just ordinary people and want to be treated in the same way you would like to be treated. Act in the same way that you would normally act, appropriate to the situation at hand.
  3. Always speak directly to the person with the disability, not to the person accompanying him or her.
  4. Be aware that a person with a disability sometimes needs extra time. Make this accommodation willingly, in a way that does not make the person feel uncomfortable.
  5. If you are planning a meeting or event, try to anticipate what specific accommodations people with disabilities might need.
  6. It is fine to use common expressions like, “See you later,” or “I’ve got to run now.” What is not appropriate is to use disability slurs or descriptions that have negative meanings
  7. Never pretend to understand what a person is saying. Listen attentively and be patient.
  8. If a person uses a wheelchair, respect the wheelchair and the space around it. Do not touch the wheelchair, or lean on it, or push it without being asked.
  9. If an individual has a developmental disability, keep the communication direction and simple. Stay focused on the person, and give them time to understand and answer.
  10. Become knowledgeable about the different types of disabilities among the members of your own community, and offer the spiritual, moral, and physical things that are needed to offer these individuals access.

The first tip is most important: because we have agency like that of others even with our limitations, people with disabilities (or our caregivers) need to be involved in the choices that make up our lives. All ten tips for disability etiquette really fall under the second point, because people are people. Use good sense and compassion when you encounter us! We don’t bite; I promise.

Recall a time when one of these tips would have been helpful.


Mike Walker (ma.walker@mail.utoronto.ca) is a theologian of disability and poet with spastic cerebral palsy from Prince Edward Island, currently based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He aims to be a practical theologian, and an advocate for both people with disabilities and others who are vulnerable; when not working, he loves to read, write, exercise, and hang out with friends. Feel free to contact Mike if you are interested in conducting an accessibility audit.

Persons with Disabilities: From Principles to Practice, Part II

This is the second of a two-part series. Read part one here.

I am a visual learner so by preference (teaching and facilitating in the way I like to learn) I tend to prioritize visual learning when designing learning experiences: showing what I mean using diagrams and pictures, drawing on visual metaphors to invite new connections, and calling on learners to draw tables, flow charts, and diagrams that demonstrate causal or relational links from one idea or action to the next. When facilitating small and large group sessions, I like to invite learners to document their idea on cards and post them, either in a web chart or on a wall calendar or timeline, the more colors the better. My experience is that most of the learners appreciate these practices but not all.

To my regret, as a result I have been caught flat-footed by participants with visual impairment. Even though one participant came prepared with the learning design printed in Braille so that she was able to follow along without visual cues, the learning tasks did not, in the main, invite her to put her best foot forward. Even though another participant was mobile because of a motorized chair, the walk-n-talks, the shifting partners of 2 x 2 or trios often demanded accommodations that unduly brought attention to him and how to accommodate those small group dialogue practices. And even though a third participant expressed her thoughts and ideas with great wisdom and clarity, I found myself learning forward, squinting, and bending over as if listening to a child because of her speech impairment.

I need to stretch my understanding and practice of inclusion well beyond a minimal definition of seeing to it that every voice is heard. So what does inclusion in this inclusive-of-persons-with-disabilities mean? What does it mean to demonstrate respect and safety for each and all? What does engagement look like? How will we design learning events so that all participants, including those persons with disabilities, are able to tell, show and demonstrate how smart they are?

Practical Tips for More Inclusion

Designing and facilitating learning events with persons with disabilities in mind is a gift, an art, and a science. While not expert, here are a few practical tips for designing and facilitating learning that take into account fuller inclusion.


  • Make the effort to find out in advance who is coming with disabilities. Including a question in your Learning Needs and Resources Assessment can demonstrate both that you are ready, aware, and willing to respond, and that you welcome and encourage their full participation. The question works best when it is placed as part of an overall assessment process, not all that different from asking if there are any special diets to take into account.
  • When appropriate, ask if any are self-excluding themselves from the learning process and event because of a disability. Checking with the organizers in advance can again encourage fuller participation. Asking the question demonstrates an interest, concern and desire to see everyone fully participate. This attitude of openness may also influence positively other aspects of the program.
  • Once you know who is coming, do the research you need to find out how they like to learn best. Inviting persons with disabilities to tell you what works can help increase their feeling of control and involvement, key factors that may lead to their success. Be sure to take these into account during your design process.


  • Examine the room layout. Is there room for a wheelchair to move from the circle of chairs, to working tables, and back? Will the visually impaired person feel comfortable with seeing aids, including dogs, in the room? What else do you need to consider in the room layout to practice fuller inclusion? What about accessibility?
  • Design or adjust your learning objectives with your learners and their abilities in mind.
  • The learning tasks that result from those learning objectives are best written from the perspective of the learners. So consider in advance your step by step instructions to ensure that persons with disabilities know how they can participate, and who will work together to be successful. As the facilitator, do a “dry run” in advance with everyone in mind (Can that wheelchair get to the necessary location? Will the visually impaired person get the full weight of the research and theory, and alone or together can they learn by doing with others?) Consider sharing the learning tasks in advance, quietly, perhaps during a break, so there is more confidence and predictability in the room.
  • Customize the production of the learning materials. A complete learning design helps all learners to see and participate. (Do you have the facilities to print the materials in Braille when needed, do you know where to go? Is there an appropriate reliance on visuals, or descriptive text that describes the visuals to ensure everyone can participate?)


  • Consider your facilitation stance. How will your voice and body language affirm and support the learning for each and all, without discrimination or sending unintended signals?
  • Choose the best place to sit and stand: Does it work best to be close to the person with a speech impairment to avoid asking for repetition, or signalling unintentional body language?
  • When setting the learning task, be sure to consider that the task is clear and that how the task will be accomplished is clear for each and all.
  • Intervene when you see and feel exclusion. Check in quietly at the break, consult before the start of the event, or solicit feedback at the end of the event that surfaces concerns of exclusion and encourages everyone to respond.
  • Be sure to celebrate the successes and insights of each and all, without discrimination.
  • Honour and name the efforts of each and all.

What tips would you add to this list, both in principle, and from your own experience?

Persons with Disabilities: From Experience to Principles, Part I

Unbelievably to me, and even at first unnoticed by me in the large ballroom style conference room that was being productive and facilitated through dialogue, the facilitator was blind, unable to see the people and setting in the room with his eyes. Led at the elbow, he deftly travelled from table to table inviting the participants to share their points of view, fielded questions from other members of the audience, and beautifully summarized the outcome of the session.

Intensely attuned to mood, sounds and feelings in that large ballroom hall, he could hear when a comment was about to be made at the other end of the room. His face, wonderfully expressive, let us know when he sensed tension or debate that needed all of our attention. His posture and listening pose affirmed each and every contribution.

“Persons with Disabilities” is the term currently used most frequently to describe persons with various kinds of impairments: physical, visual, hearing, sensory, speech, mental health, emotional, intellectual or developmental.

I celebrate his ability to expertly facilitate a very large group of advocates. He demonstrated respect in all his interactions, and perhaps his disability was a gift that focused our attention even more to being present and alert because we wanted to return that respect we felt. The topic was advocacy for and with persons with disabilities so the engagement level was extraordinarily high since the room included persons with disabilities, their allies, and the broader public. Most importantly, even in that large group of 150 people, we all felt included. We participated at table groups, our voices were heard in the group dialogue, and we found our input reflected in the summary he provided.

At the table groups too, careful seating meant that we were discussing the topic with other persons with disabilities, so our dialogue was well informed with personal experience, not only good will. Seated with a blind woman and another in a wheel chair, we were leaning in to hear what one another were saying and responding as carefully and thoughtfully as we could.

For more on the results of that session, which contributed to the report on the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Jordan, please see the report here. It was my pleasure to work alongside the organization supporting that effort, who deserves commendation for their careful, inclusive, and ground-breaking work, the Civil Society Program in Jordan.

What about you, what experiences have you had, and what have you learned about excellent facilitation and learning design skills from persons with disabilities?