The United States is one of the most accessible and welcoming countries in the world for people with disabilities and individuals who are taking part in international exchange programs. During your time in the U.S. as a Professional Fellow, please feel free to ask questions of project staff at your host sites. Do not be afraid to express any concerns you may have, as we all learn from each other.

Values and Attitudes

Some customs in the United States might differ from those of your home country. Professional Fellows in the ADA International Fellowship Program will be working in diverse environments in different parts of the United States. You may want to familiarize yourself with American culture before your departure in order to make the transition as easy as possible. Please know the information below is intended to serve as a guide but does not apply to everyone in the United States.

Equality

The United States Declaration of Independence states that “all [people] are created equal,” and this belief is deeply embedded in American cultural values. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990 prohibits discrimination and establishes equal rights for people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of everyday life. Partly because of these laws, most Americans tend to believe that all people are of equal standing and that individuals with disabilities as well as those from all ethnic, racial and cultural groups are valued and respected equally. While equality is the law, there are still individuals in the U.S. who may discriminate against people of different races, ethnicities, gender, and abilities.

Informality

Many Americans handle professional interactions in a very informal way. They believe that maintaining an informal but respectful manner allows people to simultaneously feel at ease with each other and work together to resolve challenging problems.

Directness

Americans tend to value frankness and openness in dealing with other people. Conflicts and disagreements are thought to be best solved by open discussion among the people involved. Americans believe that if someone has a problem with someone else, they should tell the person clearly and directly in order to come to a solution to the problem.

Experiencing Disability in the U.S.

People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States.  Those who do not currently have a disability have about a 20% chance of becoming disabled at some point during their life. People with disabilities cross all racial, gender, educational, socioeconomic, and ethnic groups.

U.S. laws define a person with a disability as someone with a physical or psychological condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

  • A major life activity is “anything an average individual can do with little or no difficulty” Such as walking, talking, speaking, seeing, hearing, or thinking.
  •  ‘Substantially limits’ means that someone is unable to perform, or is significantly limited in the ability to perform an activity as compared with an average person.

U.S. culture respects individuals with disabilities as equals, values their contributions and ensures their full inclusion in all areas of community living. Inclusion means that all people, regardless of their disabilities have the right to:

  • Be respected and appreciated as valuable members of their communities;
  • Participate and learn together in the same schools and classes as their peers without disabilities;
  • Participate in accessible recreational and tourism activities;
  • Work at jobs in the community that pay a competitive wage and have careers that use their capacities to the fullest;
  • Serve as a member or volunteer to give back to their communities; and
  • Travel using accessible venues and means of transportation.

Inclusion Applies to All Parts of Life

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandate that people with disabilities have freedom, equality, and opportunity to participate fully in public life. The four major goals of the ADA are:
    • Equality of opportunity,
    • Full participation,
    • Independent living, and
    • Economic self-sufficiency

Support

  • People with disabilities may need support to accomplish daily tasks and to participate fully in their communities. This support can range from adaptations to make space accessible for a person with physical or sensory disability; to training and technical assistance for program staff to be able to provide adapted services; job or a recreational activity. The support being provided should respect the wants, needs, and choices of the person with a disability.

Inclusion is…

  • Ensuring those with disabilities have access to all programs, services, classes, and activities that are open people without disabilities, including all people with disabilities
  • Assuming that all people with disabilities are competent and can participate
  • Having available the services and supports necessary for those with disabilities to participate in a class or program
  • Ensuring teachers and other professionals have the knowledge, skills, and resources necessary to support children and students with disabilities in all programs
  • Treasures the diversity of people and builds community among them

Most important to inclusion, when we say “all” we mean “ALL.”

Inclusion is not…

  • Setting up special classrooms or programs for children and youth with disabilities
  • Clustering only people with disabilities into one home, program, classroom, workplace, or social center.
  • Giving “special privileges” to people with disabilities.
  • Feeling sorry for people with disabilities.

Inclusion can look like…          

  • Martina, a woman who is blind, singing in her church choir.
  • Andrea, a woman with cerebral palsy, tutoring neighborhood children in a local volunteer center.
  • Tyrone, a young man who is deaf and has learned advocacy skills from his local Independent Living Center (ILC) and advocates for his rights and others with his city council.
  • Adam, who has Down syndrome, works as a receptionist at a local nonprofit program.
  • Lee, an eight-year-old girl who uses a breathing tube, participates in all classroom activities in her elementary school with help from her school nurse and a portable ventilator.

Basics of Disability Etiquette

In the United States, people with disabilities often have strong preferences how they are referred to. For some, people first language is preferred. For others, disability identifies language is preferred.  To find out which they prefer, ask them. For someone who prefers people first language, refer to them as “a person with a disability.” Here are some examples:

  • A person who is blind
  • An individual with epilepsy
  • A boy who has Downs syndrome

For those who prefer disability identify the language, refer to them by their disabilities, such as “a deaf person.” Here are some examples:

  • An autistic young man
  • A blind woman
  • A deaf girl

The best way to learn how someone wants to be addressed is to ask them!

Etiquette

An individual with a disability is a human being and treat them in an age-appropriate manner. This mean to that you should interact with children with a disability in the way you would interact with children without a disability. Likewise, treat adults with disabilities in the same way you would treat any adult.

  • When speaking with a person with a disability, speak directly to them using age-appropriate language. If the person has an assistant or an interpreter, do not speak to them. Your interactions should be with the person with a disability.
  • The equipment and devices people with a disabilities uses are extensions of their bodies. You should not touch them without permission. Do not lean on a person’s wheelchair, use their speak devices, or touch a person’s cane or walker without asking.
  • In the United States, people with visible and unseen disabilities may have a serviced animal that assists them or comforts them. These animals are working animals and should not be petted or talked unless the person gives you permission to do so.

Finally, it is acceptable to ask if someone needs assistance but never presume they need help. Always ask and if the person says no, respect their response. If they say they do need assistance, ask them how you can be helpful and listen to their directions. They are the expert about what they need.

And if you make a mistake, apologize and ask how you can correct your error. If you have an experience you aren’t sure about, ask the Fellowship staff. We will be happy to help you.