Sadly, over the past ten years, I seem to see more and more veterans in wheelchairs or with artificial limbs. Others have even more severe injuries. These aren't "old guys" with normal ailments, but younger guys too ... ones that have sacrificed their youth and vibrancy for the relative peace and prosperity that we enjoy at home. While I think most of us welcome them in our hearts - it is sometimes difficult to express our gratitude to veterans in general ... and only gets more awkward when they happen to be disabled. Hopefully these tips will help make things easier the next time you are in a meeting, dinner party, or simply sitting next to each other while waiting for the bus to work.
I was recently introduced to the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association or NMEDA. They are a non-profit trade association to help govern the mobility equipment sales industry and advocate for mobility without limitation. Originally established by a group of mobility equipment dealers in Florida in 1989, NMEDA has now grown to be a national organization with more than 600 members including dealers, manufacturers, rehabilitation specialists and other industry professionals in the US and Canada.
For those of you with a disability or mobility needs, they can be a great asset in identifying the right dealer to help you bring mobility back to your life. For the rest of us, I wanted to share a few tips to help make things a little less awkward next time we meet a veteran with a disability.
Good Ways to Start a Conversation:
The first thing to remember is that these guys are just regular people like you and me. While they may have done extraordinary things and traveled to exotic places, they are still just normal dudes like you and I. Treat them with the respect that you would any other guy is the first rule of the road. However, some topics that might be good to start a conversation would include asking them about their job and what branch they served. You might also ask about where they traveled - but do not assume that they were in Iraq or Afghanistan. While many veterans have visited these theaters, the US military is a world-wide force and accidents and other situations can happen anywhere ... even at home.
Topics To Avoid:
If the veteran seems reluctant to talk, don't force the subject. Remember what I said above? These are just normal guys at the end of the day and like you and I, there are some things that we don't want to talk about to strangers. Similarly, not everyone wants to be identified as a veteran all the time and this goes especially true for someone who might have a disability that isn't immediately visible i.e. a prosthetic leg hidden by plants and shoe.
Additionally, you shouldn't make any assumptions about heroic actions, political affiliation, or regret. Each guy is different and frankly, these topics can just be awkward.
Speak Directly to the Person and Interact In a Normal Voice:
Depending on the disability, the veteran you are talking with may have an attendant or communication issues. The best plan here is to speak directly to the person, but be aware if the attendant or companion needs to step in to help. In these situations, it's good to acknowledge the companion as you would any other person. Do not over compensate by speaking overly loud or slowly unless it is clear that they are having issues understanding.
For Extended Conversations, Put Yourself at the Same Level:
While not always practical for short engagements, if you happen to be talking at an event or meeting then it might be easier to grab a chair and sit next to the person instead of standing and talking down.
Be Patient and Ask Questions If Necessary:
With all disabilities, there's going to be things that take them longer to do - just be patient and ask if you can help. Don't assume that they can't do something, but make it clear that you would like to help them.
Don't be afraid to Ask About the Disability To Make The Situation Easier:
While I wouldn't recommend probing about the specifics of the disability, it is appropriate to ask in the context of assisting them. For instance, if you are walking with someone with a prosthetic leg - it may be less awkward for both of you if you ask if they would prefer the elevator or ramp vs simply assuming.
At the end of the day, remember that just because they have something "special" doesn't mean that they can't be just another guy like you and I. We all want that basic level of respect and enjoy a good story, glass of beer, and a little help to make life that much better.