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Home Resources Anti-Oppression Abilities Disability Etiquette
Disability Etiquette PDF Print E-mail
Don't let fear and uncertainty keep you from getting to know people with disabilities. Fear of the unknown and lack of knowledge about how to act can lead to uneasiness when meeting a person who has a disability.

Remember: a person with a disability is a person with feelings. Treat him or her as you would want to be treated.

You can't always see some one's disability. If a person acts unusual or seems different, just be yourself. Let common sense and friendship break down any barriers you may encounter.

Following these guidelines may help prevent uncomfortable situations.

Some basic Etiquette...

  • Avoid asking personal questions about some one's disability. If you must ask, be sensitive and show respect. Do not probe, if the person declines to discuss it.
  • Be considerate of the extra time it might take for a person with a disability to do or say something.
  • Be polite and patient when offering assistance, and wait until your offer is accepted. Listen or ask for specific instructions.
  • When planning a meeting or other event, try to anticipate specific accommodations a person with a disability might need. If a barrier cannot be avoided, let the person know ahead of time.
  • Be respectful of the rights of people with disabilities to use accessible parking spaces.

    When speaking or writing about disability...

  • Refer to a person's disability only when necessary and appropriate.
  • Use people first language-- refer to the individual first, then to his or her disability. (It is better to say "the person with a disability," rather than "the disabled person.")
  • Avoid terms that imply that people with disabilities are overly courageous, brave, special, or superhuman.
  • The use of outdated language and words to describe people with disabilities contributes greatly to perpetuating old stereotypes. No longer should we view people with disabilities as helpless or tragic victims. Awareness is the first step toward correcting this injustice. If public opinion about people with disabilities is to be brought up to date, the public needs to hear and learn to use appropriate language.

    This is a general guide to using descriptive words and language when talking to or about people with disabilities:

    person with a disability / has a disability
    people with disabilities / have disabilities
    disabled person
    the disabled / the handicapped,
    invalids, patients,
    crippled, deformed, defective

    people without disabilities
    typical person

    normal, healthy, able-bodied

    wheelchair user / uses a wheelchair

    wheelchair-bound / confined to a wheelchair

    congenital disability / birth anomaly

    birth defect / affliction

    has cerebral palsy (CP) or other condition

    a victim or cerebral palsy

    has had polio / experienced polio
    has a disability as a result of polio

    suffers from polio / afflicted with polio
    post-polios (as a noun referring to people)

    people who have mental retardation (MR)
    person with mental retardation

    the mentally retarded / mentally deficient
    a retardate / a retard (never)
    a feeble-minded person

    child with a developmental delay (DD)
    person with a developmental disability


    person with Down Syndrome

    the Down's person / Mongoloid (never)

    person who has epilepsy
    people with seizure disorders
    seizure / epileptic episode or event

    the epileptic (to describe a person)
    the epileptics
    fits / epileptic fits

    people who have mental illness
    person with a mental or emotional disorder

    the mentally ill
    crazy, psycho, mental case (never)

    people who are blind / visually impaired
    person who is hard of hearing
    person who is deaf / the Deaf (Deafness is a cultural phenomenon and should be capitalized in those instances.)

    the blind - hearing impaired (translates as "broken hearing" in sign language) deaf-mute
    deaf and dumb

    speech or communication disability

    tongue-tied, mute

    When meeting and talking with a person who has a disability...

  • A handshake is NOT a standard greeting for everyone. When in doubt, ASK the person whether he or she would like to shake hands with you. A smile along with a spoken greeting is always appropriate.
  • Speak directly to the person with a disability, not just to the ones accompanying him or her.
  • Don't mention the person's disability, unless he or she talks about it or it is relevant to the conversation.
  • Treat adults as adults. Don't patronize or talk down to people with disabilities.
  • Be patient and give your undivided attention. especially with someone who speaks slowly or with great effort.
  • Never pretend to understand what a person is saying. Ask the person to repeat or rephrase, or offer him or her a pen and paper.
  • It is okay to use common expressions like "see you soon" or "I'd better be running along."
  • Relax. Anyone can make mistakes. Offer an apology if you forget some courtesy. Keep a sense of humor and a willingness to communicate.

    When meeting someone with a disability that affects learning, intelligence, or brain function...

  • Keep your communication simple. Rephrase comments or questions for better clarity.
  • Stay focused on the person as he or she responds to you.
  • Allow the person time to tell or show you what he or she wants.

    When you are with a person who uses a wheelchair...

  • Do not push, lean on, or hold onto a person's wheelchair unless the person asks you to. The wheelchair is part of his or her personal space.
  • Try to put yourself at eye level when talking with someone in a wheelchair. Sit or kneel in front of the person.
  • Rearrange furniture or objects to accommodate a wheelchair before the person arrives.
  • Offer to tell where accessible rest rooms, telephones, and water fountains are located.
  • When giving directions to a person in a wheelchair, consider distance, weather conditions, and physical obstacles (curbs, stairs, steep hills, etc.)

    Talking with a person who is deaf or uses a hearing aid...

  • Let the person take the lead in establishing the communication mode, such as lip-reading, sign language, or writing notes.
  • Talk directly to the person, even when a sign language interpreter is present.
  • If the person lip-reads, face him or her directly, speak clearly and with a moderate pace.
  • With some people, it may help to simplify your sentences and use more facial expressions and body language.

    When meeting a person with a disability that affects speech...
  • Pay attention, be patient, and wait for the person to complete a word or thought. Do not finish it for the person.
  • Ask the person to repeat what is said, if you do not understand. Tell the person what you heard and see if it is close to what he or she is saying.
  • Be prepared for various devices or techniques used to enhance or augment speech. Don't be afraid to communicate with someone who uses an alphabet board or a computer with synthesized speech.

    Interacting with a person who is blind or has a disability that affects sight or vision...

  • When greeting the person, identify yourself and introduce others who may be present.
  • Don't leave the person without excusing yourself first.
  • When asked to guide someone with a sight disability, never push or pull the person. Allow him or her to take your arm, then walk slightly ahead. Point out doors, stairs, or curbs, as you approach them.
  • As you enter a room with the person, describe the layout and location of furniture, etc.
  • Be specific when describing the location of objects. (Example: "There is a chair three feet from you at eleven o'clock.")
  • Don't pet or distract a guide dog. The dog is responsible for its owner's safety and is always working. It is not a pet.

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