Monthly Archives: January 2014

Respect Personal Space

Respecting personal space is a good etiquette rule to utilize in all interactions, particularly first-time encounters.

Personal space is the area around an individual that they psychologically feel is their space, if this space is invaded by another they can feel uncomfortable, encroached upon, nervous and even violated. This space differs from person to person as well as depending on one’s culture. An individual’s personal space can also change depending on the circumstances of the interaction, they may feel less of a need for larger personal space amongst people they know versus being in a room full of strangers.

It is a good idea to imagine a bubble of personal space surrounding a person and respectfully stay outside of it. Typically personal space is no less than 18 inches (46cm). An arm’s length is an easy way to assess personal space.

Personal space is important for people who rely on guide, assistance, and emotional therapy dogs. In these cases the personal space expands to include the dog, which means that the arm’s length rule is applied to both the human and the dog. All guide, assistance, and emotional therapy dogs are working dogs and as such should not be distracted by people trying to get their attention, talking to them, approaching them or petting them. These dogs have a job to do and should not be disturbed. Most dogs are well trained but like every other worker they can have off days and your distraction can severely impact their ability to assist their person. If you can’t resist then ask permission first, respect the personal space and stay outside of the arm’s length while asking and if you receive permission then approach the animal. If you do not receive permission accept the answer and understand the dog needs to be focused on its job.

Personal space is also expanded for people who use mobility aids (walkers, wheelchairs, scooters, canes, forearm crutches, etc.). The mobility aids are an extension of the person and therefore the personal space includes their aid. One should never touch a mobility aid without first asking for and receiving permission. Surprisingly people see mobility aids as conveniences that they can use, some examples include: people draping coats or purses on the back of a wheelchair, people using a tray on a wheelchair or the seat of a walker to hold their drinks or food, and people leaning on wheelchairs and scooters in lines; none of these are acceptable unless the person with the mobility aid has invited you or given you permission to do so. It is surprising how often these examples occur, particularly when done by strangers. It is also important to note that as the mobility aid is included within the personal space you should never move a person’s mobility aid without first asking for permission. Even when someone has transferred from their mobility aid to another seat, or when someone has put down their cane or crutches, you must first ask for permission before touching or moving the mobility aid.

Some people with Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism can be hypersensitive to environments. Allowing for personal space helps to be more comfortable during the interaction. Encroaching on one’s personal space can make one feel trapped, nervous and anxious. Also, people who are hypersensitive to their environments can find scents and smells intense and overpowering so personal space is important to keep the scents of your body at an appropriate distance from them as to not overwhelm them.

It is estimated that 20% of the population are Highly Sensitive Persons, a term coined by Dr. Elaine N. Aron, PhD for people with the innate trait of high sensitivity. People with this are affected in many ways which influences their social interaction. One such impact is that they are highly attuned to smells and as such can be overpowered, agitated and distracted by scents and smells on people, thus personal space is vital to productive interactions.

People with environmental sensitivities and allergies also appreciate being given their personal space, as while you may enjoy the scents and smells on you from your various products it may be overwhelming and physically uncomfortable to them.

For people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder personal space can be vital to their ability to interact. If someone is within their personal space their defensive motor responses can be triggered which can place them into a fight or flight response severely impacting their ability to communicate, connect, and socialize.

Personal space can enhance one’s ability to interact, socialize, communicate, and feel comfortable within their surroundings. Offering personal space can be a sign of respect to demonstrate that you understand working dogs and mobility aids are an extension of the person and as such should never be touched without first obtaining permission. Allowing for an arm’s length of personal space is an easy way to make people feel more comfortable and to allow them to focus on the interaction at hand. Respecting a person’s personal space is an easy way to start your interaction off on the right foot. If you continue to interact with the person you may find that over time there is less of a need for personal space but in the beginning, particularly during first-time interactions, always allow for personal space of at least an arm’s length.

What is Disability?

Disability is an umbrella term that refers to a condition that affects a person’s ability to go about their daily life. A disability affects one’s capacity to function with general tasks, communication, physical mobility, learning and/or interpersonal skills. Disability can also curtail one’s ability to fully participate in social, community, and civic life. Disability can affect a person in any of the following ways: developmental, cognitive, physical, sensory, mental, emotional, environmental or a combination thereof.

Everyone, at some point in their life, will experience disability (whether they identify it as such or not). As disability is a broad term it can encompass all of the following: broken leg, spinal cord injury, amputation, use of a wheelchair, acquired brain injury, stuttering, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, learning difficulties such as dyslexia, cancer, epilepsy, age related health issues, visual or hearing impairments, mental health, obesity, paralysis, depression, anxiety disorder, arthritis, cerebral palsy and more.

Disability can be temporary, permanent or episodic. A temporary disability could be breaking a leg and using crutches or a wheelchair for a short time. A permanent disability can be from birth or acquired later in life. An episodic disability is when someone experiences disability in fluctuating periods, these flares, in many cases, can be without pattern or predictability; examples can include: epilepsy, asthma, multiple sclerosis, depression, environmental sensitivities, and/or mental health issues.

There are visible disabilities and invisible disabilities. A visible disability is one which is obvious because of a visual cue such as a cane, a wheelchair, or a guide dog. Invisible disabilities affect people but are not visible to the eye. Some invisible disabilities only become evident overtime or do not become apparent until an interaction reveals it such as when there is the need for written communication with someone who has a learning difficulty. People with invisible disabilities often experience additional limitations due to people who do not believe their disability is real because it cannot be seen.

Disability is a term that applies to one’s limitations in daily life but there are instances when someone has no functional limitations but other people’s misperceptions push disability onto them. This often occurs through social interaction. An example could be a person with a facial disfigurement who does not have any limitations or a person who is an amputee but with of the use of a prosthetic has no functional limitation and yet people’s interactions with them become disabling because people perceive the person differently, as less, and/or in a limiting way which places unnecessary restrictions on them. Another example is when someone is in remission following something like cancer and people continue to treat the person as if they were in the midst of their health issue which can place unnecessary limitations on the person. Oftentimes people’s perceptions can be more limiting to those with disabilities than their actual or perceived disability.

Some people give a lot of weight to the word “disability” but it is simply a designation, much like gender, nationality, and sexuality. It is a part of the person but not the whole of the person. Having a disability is a part of my life but it does not wholly define me or my abilities. It is a designation that can be used on a form for medical or governmental reasons but it is not a word that defines me completely as a person.

Disability should not be a scary word. It should not be a word that people feel ashamed to apply to themselves. It should not be a word that people refer to in a negative or condescending way. It is simply a part of life and we should keep in mind that every person will experience disability at some point. We should accept the word as part of life and work to improve the current social and physical limitations which create unnecessary barriers and result in more disability. With awareness, education and effort these social and physical barriers can be broken down and the use of the designation of disability will be less necessary. The first step towards this is understanding what disability is. I hope this post has helped you to understand the basic definition of disability.

Introductory Post

My name is Heather McCain. I have been living with disability and chronic pain for seventeen years, exactly half of my life. I learned, fairly quickly, that the public perception of disability and chronic pain is not a true reflection of my experiences or of others. The media tends to only tell stories about people with disabilities, chronic pain, and/or health issues if they can put them in a hero or victim role and I want to demonstrate that we are more than what the media portrays. I have also come to recognize that there is a silence to life with disability and chronic pain and that they are not often openly discussed and as such it is hard for those without disability or chronic pain to understand the issues we deal with on a daily basis. As a person with an acquired disability I understand what it is to live a life with no thought to accessibility, disability or chronic pain. Without first hand knowledge it is easy to have preconceived notions or to have no notion at all about what disability and/or chronic pain is and how it affects one’s life.

Over the past ten years I have worked to educate, advise and instruct people, whether individuals, groups, companies, non-profits or the media, through three ventures: my first was founding and running a chronic pain support group for six years, my second was writing a monthly column entitled Abilities for the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Times over a five year period during which I profiled community members living with disability and chronic pain, and my third venture was founding Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhoods in 2005, a non-profit organization that works to support full inclusion within communities of which I am the Executive Director. From all I have experienced through these three ventures as well as through my daily life I have realized that there is a definite need and desire for information from a first hand perspective about life with disability and chronic pain available in an open forum, therefore I am launching this blog.

My hope, with this blog, is to offer insight while changing misperceptions, expanding people’s knowledge and starting a dialogue. I will also be using this blog to educate about the need for accessibility as well as what accessibility means and educating about the proper etiquette while interacting with people with disabilities. Additionally, I hope that by sharing my experiences those who live with disability and chronic pain will see the commonalities in our lives and feel supported, empathized with and understood. When I first started experiencing disability and chronic pain I often wondered if my struggles, frustrations, and encounters were exclusive to me and I felt enormous relief and support when I realized that while my specifics were unique I had a lot in common with others living with disability and chronic pain.

I welcome any feedback and comments. I hope to start conversations with this blog so please feel free to comment. However I do want to mention that as someone living with a disability and chronic pain I have experienced enough negative comments and judgements thrown my way so while I welcome comments, including those not agreeing with me, I ask that you be respectful and not use any abusive, shaming, or rude language.

Thank you for visiting my blog. I have more detailed information about myself, my organization, and the four purposes of this blog in the about sections located in the tabs at the top of the page or by visiting our site: