Disability Etiquette

  • A good guideline is to recognize that disabilities are like any other type of diversity. The norms you have about interfacing with someone of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and so forth, all apply to people with disabilities.

  • People with disabilities are people first. Their disability should come second.  Avoid identifying people by their diversity characteristic when it isn’t relevant. Just as you wouldn’t say, “The white guy,” you should avoid saying “The guy in the wheelchair.” Rather, try to describe the man as you would someone who does not have a disability. Emphasize his personhood and what you know about him. “The guy who sits in the front of the class and talks a lot about his travels in Latin America.”

  • The word "handicap" is insulting to most people, and should be avoided. "Handicap" is derived from "cap in hand," a phrase associated with beggars and begging.

  • Don’t attach catastrophizing words to a disability. Say “a person with a hearing impairment” versus “a person afflicted with a hearing impairment.”

  • Sometimes using euphemisms like “visually impaired” annoy a person with a disability. They might actually prefer that you say “blind.” If you’re unsure, ask the person what terminology s/he prefers.

  • When talking to someone with a disability, maintain eye contact. 

  • Talk directly to the person with the disability, even if he or she is using an interpreter. If parents or friends are present, encourage the person with the disability to express his/her own opinions. 

  • Don’t assume that someone with a disability needs help.

  • It’s fine to ask someone if they would like help. If you notice that someone has a restricted range of motion, you can ask if s/he would like you to hand them something.

  • Use a normal tone of voice. If the person cannot hear or understand you, he or she will most likely let you know.

  • If you do not understand what the person with a disability is saying, you should say so. This will likely be appreciated. Ask the person to repeat or use an alternative phrase or write it down.

  • Invite a person with a speech difficulty to join you in a quieter space so you can better hear him/her.

  • When talking with a person who has an intellectual disability, speak simply, not loudly or as if s/her were a child.

  • Be careful not to assume that a person with one disability also has others. A person who uses a wheelchair probably doesn’t have an intellectual disability.

  • When first meeting a person with severe loss of vision, always identify yourself and introduce anyone else who might be present.

  • When offering a seat to a person with a visual impairment, ask him/her how you can help (perhaps by placing her hand on the back or arm of the seat).

  • People who use mobility devices like canes and wheelchairs and walkers typically consider their device a part of them. Be respectful of the person’s physical boundary. When talking with a person using a wheelchair, don't lean on the wheelchair.

  • Don’t try to avoid using common idioms like "see," "walk" or "hear" around people with disabilities. Being overly conscious of a person's disability can cause discomfort and awkwardness.

  • Avoid saying things like “you're such an inspiration…”

  • Don’t use the large bathroom stalls that are reserved for people with disabilities.

  • When in doubt, just treat the person the same way you would like to be treated.

  • Many disabilities are “hidden” so it’s important to be sensitive in all communications. Don’t assume that if a disability isn’t obvious one doesn’t exist.

  • If you have access to a car with a handicap sticker, but the person who needs the handicap parking space is not with you, don’t park in a handicap spot.